|13 December 2009
Ancient Pacific islanders brought to light
When a team of archaeologists began excavating an old coral reef in Vanuatu in 2008 and 2009, they soon discovered it had served as a cemetery in ancient times. So far, 71 buried individuals have been recorded, giving new information on the islands' inhabitants and their funeral rites. "This is a groundbreaking discovery, as it is the oldest and biggest skeleton find ever in the Pacific Ocean; bigger cemeteries found further east are much younger", says Mads Ravn, head of research at the University of Stavanger's Museum of Archaeology in Norway.
Relatives did not treat their dead gently. Besides being headless, some of them had had their arms and legs broken, in order to fit into the coral reef cavities. Ravn suggests they may have been left to rot first, and buried later as skeletons.
Vanuatu is a nation of 83 islands, located 1,750 kilometres east of Australia. The soil contains remnants from a violent volcano eruption, believed to have taken place exactly 3000 years ago. Scientists have found no sign of human activity predating this event. "The way these people are buried, bears witness of a body concept which is different from the whole-body concept in Europe the last 5000 years," says Mads Ravn. "There was no sharp divide between life and death, and the dead were participating in the present. A few decades ago in Bali and other Pacific islands, people were putting their ancestors' skulls on display in their homes," he adds. This may explain why the Vanuatu skeletons are headless. One skeleton was found with five skulls on his chest, and Ravn believes the heads may have been used in ancestral rituals.
The islanders usually removed the volcanic ash before burying their dead under ashes and sand. Each grave is marked with a pottery jar decorated with intricate patterns, possibly stamped by small pieces of worked bone. The ceramic also depicts faces and eyes, perhaps images of their ancestors.
Vanuatu's first inhabitants probably came from Taiwan and the Philippines, having travelled thousands of miles by outrigger canoes equipped with sails and big enough to contain large families. The canoers settled on the uninhabited islands, and supported themselves by fishing and cultivating the land. Giant tortoises were abundant and easy to catch. Volcanic ashes from 3000 years ago contain many tracks of tortoises, but these are entirely non-existent 100 years on.
"It is very interesting to observe the consequences of human beings taking possession over virgin land," says Ravn. Over a few centuries, several species went extinct - the giant tortoise among them. Traces of mussel shells also bear witness of excessive consumption. The shells diminish in size as the sediments get younger. According to Ravn, the inhabitants quite simply overextended their resources.
The skeletons' DNA profiles should be ready later this winter, and the scientists hope to uncover kinship links among the dead. But there are already some findings of their health condition. "People were suffering from gout and caries - both diseases associated with the good life. But we can tell from our samples that the inhabitants were laborious and strong. They were simply genetically disposed to contracting gout from eating shellfish. And starch in food such as Taro and sweet potatoes induced caries," says Ravn.
Tooth analyses also revealed what these first islanders looked like. "They were most probably fair skinned of Asian origin, unlike the present day Melanesians, whose skin is dark. The original settlers probably travelled on, or mixed up with the Melanesians that arrived later," "But future DNA studies and isotopic analyses may later confirm that", Ravn says.
Source: AlphaGalileo (11 December 2009)
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