Headless Skeletons Reveal Secrets of Ancient Islanders

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2007

A bizarre, 3,000-year-old burial site is providing rare insights into the lives of an ancient island culture.

The site in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu includes a skull in a jar and 60 headless skeletons—one of them with three skulls arrayed across its rib cage. (See photos of the skeletons.)

In 2003 construction workers at Teouma, an archaeological site on Éfaté Island, unearthed 60 skeletons. Their skulls had been taken away by mourners some time after burial.

But a new isotope analysis of teeth left behind has given researchers new clues to the lifestyle and origins of the mysterious Lapita people, ancestors of today's Polynesians and Melanesians—roughly the peoples of the central and southeastern Pacific north and east of Australia.

Isotopes are elements that have different masses, and analyzing their signatures can reveal the makeup of chemical compounds.

"We've finally got a good sample of the population," said excavation leader Stuart Bedford of the National University of Australia at Canberra.

He said the tests proved that four individuals were not born in the immediate area. This supports evidence for a rapid Lapita expansion eastward from the island of New Guinea—which today is split into provinces of Indonesia and the independent nation of Papua New Guinea—around 3,000 years ago.

(See a map of Papua New Guinea.)

"They could have come from anywhere between [islands surrounding] New Guinea and Vanuatu," Bedford said.

"The difficulty is that we now need isotopic profiles from other regions for comparison."

Lapita Migration

The Lapita are thought to have arrived on the island of New Guinea from Southeast Asia.

Continued on Next Page >>


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