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Skeletons unearthed at a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Vanuatu.

Ancient Skulls Give Insights into Origins of Polynesians

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Due to an analysis of the oldest-known cemetery in the South Pacific, the long-standing debate over the origins and ancestry of Polynesians may finally be resolved. A group of scientists, who studied a set of skulls from a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Vanuatu, believe that they may have unlocked a vital clue to the origins of Polynesian people.

The excavations took place between 2004 and 2010. A team from the Australian National University's (ANU) school of archeology and anthropology in 2004 discovered the oldest known cemetery in the South Pacific, at Teouma, just outside the capital of Port Vila, Vanuatu. The cemetery belongs to the first known culture in Vanuatu and Polynesia, called the Lapita culture.

Before they published the results of their research, they spent over seven years analyzing their discovery. The results of the analyses were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report says that the shape and contours of the earliest skull in the 3,000-year-old burial ground in Vanuatu suggests a starting point for the great Polynesian migration.  

The skulls were recovered at Teouma (pictured) in Vanuatu

The skulls were recovered at Teouma (pictured) in Vanuatu ( allaboutvanuatu.com)

The secret of the skulls

During the excavation archeologists found about 68 graves, but strangely only seven bodies with heads. Professor Matthew Spriggs told ABC news that the heads were removed as part of burial rituals and were taken away and put elsewhere. Luckily, some of them were brought back in the cemetery and put on the chests of other bodies, between their legs, or in pots sitting on top of other bodies.

"Before 3,000 years ago - although people had been in Australia, New Guinea and the Solomons for maybe 50,000 years or so - they hadn't got out beyond into islands like Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, and out into the further reaches of the Pacific. What we found, which was a surprise for a lot of people, was that these first people in Vanuatu were Polynesian. Whereas today if you come to Vanuatu, the people are obviously generally of Melanesian appearance. Darker skinned, and not as tall as Polynesians would be," Spriggs told the ABC.

As shown in this map, Vanuatu is typically seen as part of Melanesia. However, new research suggests that the first people in Vanuatu were Polynesian

As shown in this map, Vanuatu is typically seen as part of Melanesia. However, new research suggests that the first people in Vanuatu were Polynesian (public domain)

Matthew Spriggs and colleagues conducted morphological analysis involving craniometric measurements of skeletons. Measurements were taken on five skulls recovered from the Teouma site and 270 more skulls from Melanesia, Western Micronesia, Australia, China and Polynesia. The research will be continued and the researchers will examine DNA from the Teouma skeletons in the near future. The DNA analysis will help to confirm or discount the team's conclusions about the origins of Polynesians.

The chicken gives a new light

Before the latest discovery, another group of researchers affiliated with the Australian Center of Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide used the ancient DNA to study the origins of chickens to find the roots of ancestral Polynesians

The study, published in American Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the Philippines was the ancestral homeland of the Polynesians, whose forebears colonized the Pacific about 3,200 years ago. According to Alan Cooper, director of the ACAD, the research showed that Polynesian chickens had their roots in the Philippines. It makes that region a candidate for the homeland of the mysterious Lapita people thought to be ancestral to Polynesians. Professor Cooper's team found a unique Pacific genetic signature in all of the ancient chicken bone samples, which were hundreds of years old.

According to the article published on PhillStar, his team made many attempts to pinpoint the Southeast Asian ancestral homeland of the Polynesians, with many putting it in China's Taiwan. They were doing further sampling work on modern chickens throughout Southeast Asia to see where the genetic trail lead.

The face of Mana, a Lapita woman whose face was reconstructed using a model of her skull which was excavated from an early human settlement at Naitabale in Fiji.

The face of Mana, a Lapita woman whose face was reconstructed using a model of her skull which was excavated from an early human settlement at Naitabale in Fiji.  Photo source .

Searching for the Polynesian roots

The question about the origins of the Polynesians was framed by Captain Cook, the famous 18th century navigator. During his third voyage he stopped at the Hawaiian islands. For a very long time, many anthropologists, archaeologists, oceanographers and geneticists tried to answer this question. 

Thor Heyerday sailed the balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki more than 4,000 miles from Peru to the Tuamotu in 1947 to prove that the Pacific must have been settled from the Americas. His expedition didn't succeed. The first person who reported that the ancient Lapita culture is linked to the modern Polynesian settlers was an archaeologist and ethnologist from Nanterre, Frédérique Valentin.

Until now no research explains how one group of oceanic navigators took their language, traditions and canoes to tens of thousands of islands scattered across almost one third of the world’s biggest ocean.

The graveyard on Efate Island in Vanuatu is linked to the western Pacific’s Melanesian ethnic group, the oldest, dated 3,000 years ago. It suggests that Vanuatu may have been the springboard for the great leap into the Pacific. Modern Polynesians are strongly connected to the ancient people associated with the Lapita Culture.

Featured image: Skeletons unearthed at a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Vanuatu. Credit: Frederique Valentin.

By: Natalia Klimczak

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