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Thursday 14 July 2005

ANU media release

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Heads found in pots in Vanuatu dig

Skulls belonging to some of the earliest inhabitants of the Pacific have been unearthed by ANU archaeologists working in Vanuatu.

Headless skeletons of the Lapita people aged between 3200 and 3000 years old were excavated by ANU archaeologists Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford at Teouma near Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila last year, after construction workers stumbled across the ancient remains while constructing a prawn farm.

The archaeological excavation is a joint project with the Vanuatu National Museum and also involves collaboration with researchers from French and New Zealand universities.

As part of an ancient ritual of the Lapita people, the heads of all bodies at the cemetery had been removed.

This year, the archaeologists returned to the site, the earliest cemetery known in the region, for a second season of excavation, which is revealing some surprising insights into the Lapita culture.

“What happened to the heads was a mystery until the burial of an old man was found with three heads placed on his chest. He too had no head and none of the skulls found on his chest belonged to him. Even more mysteriously, one of those skulls had a lower jaw but the jaw didn't belong to any of the three skulls,” Professor Spriggs said.

The archaeological team has found rare examples of complete Lapita pots at the site — one of which contained a human skull.

“Very few complete Lapita pots have ever been found and these are the first from Vanuatu,” Professor Spriggs said.

“The first find was of a flat-bottomed dish placed upside down in the ground. Around its side were designs of human faces of two different types. When we lifted up the pot we were amazed to find that it had been used as the lid of another large complete pot, and inside that pot was a human skull.”

Work continues on the excavation of a second pot nearby, also placed upside down, and a third pot, which had been badly damaged by later activity at the site, has also been found to contain human bones.

Next to the three pots were two skeletons, one of which had big shells placed over parts of the body. Like all the other adult skeletons found so far, the heads of these two skeletons had been removed after burial. Several other skeletons have also been found this week and will be excavated over the remaining two weeks of the dig.

“The burials in pots are unique in the Pacific at this early period but are common starting about 5500 years ago in Taiwan, and a bit later in the Philippines and Indonesia. They may give clues as to the origins of the Lapita culture, and therefore the origins of all Pacific peoples south and east of the main Solomon Islands,” Professor Spriggs said.

The Lapita people were the first people to settle Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Experts disagree about where they came from originally, but the issue is likely to be resolved by comparing DNA extracted from the skeletons unearthed by Professor Spriggs and his team with DNA of people living in the Pacific today.

Professor Spriggs said studies of the skeletons have revealed that the Lapita people were large, strong people, who enjoyed a good diet. Their upper arms were particularly strong and this is probably from paddling canoes on a regular basis.

At least one third of Lapita adults had suffered some form of injury during their life, such as broken bones. The older adults also showed clear signs of degenerative diseases of the bones caused by various types of arthritis.

"Every day at the site something new turns up which allows us insights into the religious beliefs and rituals of the first inhabitants of Vanuatu. Teouma is the most interesting archaeological site I have ever worked on,” Professor Spriggs said.

Director of the Vanutatu National Museum and ANU anthropology graduate Mr Ralph Regenvanu said: “There is tremendous public interest in knowing where our ancestors came from all those thousands of years ago. Teouma is one of the most important archaeological sites yet found in the Pacific and gives us a real chance to study the culture and at the same time the biology and health of our ancestors.”

Further Information

Tim Winkler
Media Liaison
Tel: 02 6125 5001 / 0416 249 231