Analysis of strange burial positions and skeletons’ teeth has given clues about earliest Pacific Island society, according to new research.
The research team, led by Durham University, United Kingdom, analysed skeletons’ teeth from seventeen excavated skeletons who were found in some unusual burial positions at the earliest ancient cemetery in the Pacific. The scientists identified a small group of immigrants, mostly buried with the head to the south, and one with three heads on his chest.
The results from the team’s analysis strongly suggest that some had migrated from distant coastal locations, potentially as far away as Southeast Asia. The new discovery gives further insight into the colonists of the Pacific islands.
The scientists from Durham, Otago and Australian National universities, whose paper is published in American Antiquity, analysed the strontium, carbon and oxygen isotope signatures of the teeth giving the researchers vital information about their geological origin, their diet and likely source of their drinking water.
Two distinct groups were discovered with scientific evidence showing a majority had a diet of mainly local plants and seafood, and a minority of four standing out with a coastal but still terrestrial diet identifying them as immigrants. The immigrants’ oxygen levels were significantly higher than those of the local skeletons indicating they were from a distant location outside the tropical Pacific.
Lead author Dr Alex Bentley, lecturer in Anthropology at Durham University, explains: “The combination of the way these people were buried and the information we have about their possible origin reveals a richness of social complexity. Although they travelled long distances by sea, they nonetheless were farmers as much as they were fisher folk.
“The curious burials among the identified group of prehistoric Pacific mariners, who were among the best navigators on earth for the next 3,000 years, indicate they were admired by the locals for their amazing long-distance travelling abilities.”
The cemetery was discovered by a research team led by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford from The Australian National University and the Vanuatu National Museum in 2003 at Teouma, on Efate Island in Vanuatu, which is situated between Fiji and Australia. The team uncovered almost fifty burials, more than doubling the number of skeletal remains of the first Pacific islanders from anywhere around the Pacific. A project on the health of the Teouma people is being led by Dr Hallie Buckley of the University of Otago.
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