Headless skeletons hold Pacific colonization key

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A 3,000-year-old burial site in Vanuatu containing 60 headless skeletons and skulls in pots is helping end the mystery over colonization of the Pacific and the first Polynesians, archaeologists said on Tuesday.

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The remains have enabled scientists to reconstruct the lives and habits of the seafaring Lapita people, who settled Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa from Melanesian islands scattered to the west.

“We’ve got the archaeological record, but until now the actual people have been missing from the story,” researcher Stuart Bedford, from the Australian National University, told Reuters.

The remains were found in 2003 at an archaeological dig on Efate Island, in the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, in a cemetery in use by the Lapita at the time of Egypt’s Pharaohs.

The Lapita are believed to be ancestral Polynesians, moving east from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands over thousands of miles of ocean, taking with them their crops and animals.

The burial site at Teouma, on the southern coast of Efate, was first uncovered by bulldozers clearing land for a shrimp farm, and was excavated by scientists from Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

The skeletons were buried with ornate ceramic pots, some in carefully laid south-facing graves, and in one case three heads were laid on the dead person’s chest, the researchers wrote in an October article for the journal American Antiquity.

None of the remains had an attached skull and the heads may have been removed after burial, the researchers said, with the grouping of three skulls possibly due to mystical significance the islanders had for the number.

Bedford said chemical analysis of their teeth revealed vital information about the origins, diets and burial practices of the Lapita.

At least four of the 60 had migrated from distant coastal locations, possibly as far as Southeast Asia.

“Although they traveled long distances by sea, they nonetheless were farmers as much as they were fisher folk,” said Alex Bentley, from Durham University, who led the team.