| 5 January 2016
Ancient Vanuatu cemetery sheds light on Polynesian migration
Scientists studying skulls found at a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Vanuatu say they may have unlocked a vital clue to the origins of Polynesian people.
Professor Matthew Spriggs, from the Australian National University's (ANU) school of archaeology and anthropology, is part of a team that in 2004 discovered the oldest known cemetery in the South Pacific, at Teouma, just outside the capital of Port Vila. The excavation took place over several years, between 2004 and 2010, and the archaeologists found about 68 graves, although curiously only seven heads.
"The heads were removed as part of burial rituals and were taken away and put elsewhere. But luckily for us, some of them were brought back in the cemetery and put on the chests of other bodies, or between their legs, or in pots sitting on top of other bodies," Professor Spriggs said.
The cemetery was proved be about 3,000 years old and related to the first known culture in Vanuatu and Polynesia, called the Lapita culture. "Before 3,000 years ago - although people had been in Australia, New Guinea and the Solomons for maybe 50,000 years or so - they hadn't got out beyond into islands like Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, and out into the further reaches of the Pacific," Professor Spriggs said. "So this was exciting, because it was the first generations of people into Vanuatu."
It has long been established that the Polynesians, who share similar physical features to people from South-East Asia, migrated from Asia. What is not clear is the route they took.
As part their research, Professor Spriggs' colleagues in Europe compared the seven skulls found in the Teouma cemetery with examples of skeletons from Melanesia and Polynesia. "What we found, which was a surprise for a lot of people, was that these first people in Vanuatu were Polynesian. Whereas today if you come to Vanuatu, the people are obviously generally of Melanesian appearance. Darker skinned, and not as tall as Polynesians would be. These [the people buried in cemetery] were very tall Polynesians."
The skulls found at Teouma were similar in appearance and measurements to present day Polynesian and Asian populations. Professor Spriggs said this provided evidence that Polynesia was populated by people who came from Asia via Vanuatu.
Professor Spriggs said DNA analysis could help confirm or discount the team's conclusions about the Teouma skeletons. "Or it could even narrow it down to where in South-East Asia these ancestors of the Polynesians, and these ancestors of the people in Vanuatu came from," he concluded.
Edited from ABC News (29 December 2015)
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