| 4 March 2007
Ancient remains unearthed in Vanuatu
Archaeologists digging in Vanuatu (Melanesia) have unearthed an ancient cemetery containing the curiously headless skeletons of what are believed to be the earliest known ancestors of Pacific Islanders.The 3,000 year-old remains are those of the Lapita people, who colonised Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa around the time the Pharaohs reigned in Egypt, says Professor Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University, who led the dig.
Prof Spriggs said tests are expected to confirm that the skeletons belong to the ancestors of Polynesian groups like Maori, Tongans and Samoans. "It's the earliest cemetery ever found in the Pacific Islands," he said. "Up until now people have speculated about the origins of the Polynesians, the origins of the Lapita people, and who were the Lapita people? We've actually got the Lapita people."
He said the Vanuatu National Museum asked the ANU to investigate the site after it was disturbed by bulldozers clearing the way for a prawn farm. The site was excavated in three stages over 2004, 2005 and 2006 by a team co-directed by his ANU colleague Dr Stuart Bedford and Ralph Regenvanu from the Vanuatu National Cultural Council.
Prof Spriggs says the remains, as well as other archaeological evidence, suggest the Lapita dug up dead people and removed their heads after burial, held the number three as magical and may have believed that children "weren't real people". This is because not one child was found among the 70 skeletons at the cemetery at Teouma, on the southern coast of the island of Efate. "The only group that's missing are young kids," Prof Spriggs says. "We've got (young) babies, we've got adult males and females of all ages, but we've got no kids between one and 16. "Did they feel that kids weren't real people yet, so they were treated differently or weren't buried in the same place?"
Another mystery is the location of the heads. Of 70 individuals, only seven skulls have been located, including three on one man's chest, three between the legs of another man and one in a pot. Spriggs says it's likely that the heads were removed after burial. Up till about 100 years ago when European missionaries arrived in the Pacific, it was common practice for islanders to let the flesh rot away from the head of a dead person and then place the skull in a shrine or a house, he says. "The head was seen as the seat of the soul, so it's the most important part," he says. It was also a common ritual to remove other bones. "Quite often the shoulder blades have been removed and often the forearm bones," he says. The fact that skulls were found in groups of three suggests that the number may have held some magical significance for the Lapita.
Prof Spriggs says scientists in New Zealand and US laboratories will test the bones for traces of ancient DNA which, together with skull measurements, will hopefully solve the riddle of the origins of the Polynesian people. It's most likely to confirm theories that the Polynesians originally came from South-East Asia via Eastern Indonesia, the Philippines and ultimately Taiwan, he says. The team also unearthed six elaborately decorated pots - the largest number of completely reconstructed pots of any site of its age in the Pacific. Five of the pots are on display at Vanuatu and the sixth is being restored at the Australian Museum.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (28 February 2007)
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