Cemetery findings in Vanuatu continue to surprise

03:23, Mar 31 2014
HARD GRAFT: Painstaking work on the Lapita cemetery in Vanuatu.

It's been just over a decade since a bulldozer driver creating a prawn farm uncovered a remarkable 3000-year-old burial ground that is still surprising scientists trying to understand who Polynesians are.

Sixty-eight remains taken from the cemetery at Teouma near Port Vila in Vanuatu have even provided a literal picture of what the fore-runners of people who later became Maori, Samoan, Tongans and Polynesian looked like.

In a new paper published this month science has revealed what these ''Lapita people'' ate - and how men did better than women.

Vanuatu's indigenous people, the Ni-Vanuatu, were curious for a face of those from the grave yard .

''The pictures do not look like today's ni-Vanuatu,'' says Otago University Anatomy Associate Professor Hallie Buckley, but they don't look Polynesian either. 

''We can say the men were very robust, they were not particularly tall, but they were extremely muscular.''


Women were also muscular but by today's standards they were short. 

''They were very active people.''

Buckley has been involved in the project from the beginning, as well as New Zealand's Wairau Bar where 44 human skeletons proved to be first colonisers who arrived from East Polynesia in about 1280.

Dr Susan Hayes, from the University of Western Australia, used a computer programme to create the faces of four mature Lapita adults from skulls.

She used known details of faces and then added ''more speculative aspects''.

While creating images has attracted academic criticism Buckley points to the experience they had with the Wairau Bar's Rangitane iwi when they created pictures.

''Rangitane were blown away by what they saw; they can see their cousins, their sons in the faces."

'It didn't happen with ni-Vanuatu as the Lapita had left long before the now indigenous people had arrived on Efate Island.

The origin of Polynesians is an enigma, with a loose consensus saying they emerged from South Asian islands; Taiwan or the Philippines.

Around 3000-4000 years ago they began their journey through Melanesia, having little to do with the people already in New Guinea and the Solomons who had arrived up to 50,000 years earlier .  

It took only 300 years leading to the label of the "Express Train theory". Why they moved so quickly is part of the mystery; some believe they were escaping malaria .

They carried distinctively decorated pottery, found in 250 sites across Polynesia.It has been named after what experts thought was a place name close to excavations carried out in New Caledonia in the 1950s where the distinctive pottery was found.

An archaeologist misheard a local Haveke word ''xepeta'a'' and deduced the place was called Lapita - and the unknown people who had owned the pottery became the Lapita people. Xapeta'a means ''to dig a hole''.

The Lapita arrived at Efate around 3000 years ago, settling at Teouma, then on the coast but now inland. 

They buried their dead with care and some ceremony, in some cases within decorated pottery vessels.

By accident of geography, volcanology and chemistry, the cemetery offered unparalleled preservation of skeletal remains.

''These people are unique; they are a truly colonising population. It is incredibly rare to find this,'' Buckley says.

Along with Otago colleague Dr Rebecca Kinaston, Buckley and others this month published another paper on the Lapita bodies - this time using human bone collagen to work out what they ate.

It was a kind of free range diet with a mixture of reef fish, shellfish, marine turtles and fruit bats and domestic pigs and chickens they had brought with them. 

They hunted to extinction land-based crocodile, flightless birds including a large megapode, several species of bat and a giant tortoise.

''The extreme predation of fragile native and endemic species is a common feature of initial human occupation of the (Pacific Islands), most spectacularly evidenced in New Zealand with the extinction of moa and a whole range of other fauna.''

The men did much better than the women. That could have been to do with the different jobs each had; or the kind of social practices still seen in Polynesia where highly ranked individuals such as chiefs are traditionally male with preferential access to high-status foods.

''Choice cuts of pig and chicken and relatively scarce marine foods (e.g. turtle and shark) are traditionally restricted to high status men within many modern Pacific communities .''

Buckley believes there could be another 15 years' work to do on the cemetery findings.

Whether it will settle the Polynesian question is unclear.

Separate evidence is emerging of other people who may have come through Micronesia who contributed to the world's latest ethnic peoples, Polynesians.

''Lapita had a contribution to Polynesian genetics, but perhaps not as direct as was first believed.'

"What we are trying to do is use these skeletons and these chemical analyses to bring back that humanity. 

''We cannot give individual personality to something, but we are trying to show how they lived and to bring part of them back to life.''