email a friend iconprinter friendly iconPioneers of the Pacific
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With the discovery of the Lapita cemetery on Éfaté, the volume of data available to researchers has expanded dramatically. The bones of at least 62 individuals have been uncovered so far—including old men, young women, even babies—and more skeletons are known to be in the ground.

Archaeologists were also thrilled to discover six complete Lapita pots; before this, only four had ever been found. Other discoveries included a burial urn with modeled birds arranged on the rim as though peering down at the human bones sealed inside. It's an important find, Spriggs says, for it conclusively identifies the remains as Lapita. "It would be hard for anyone to argue that these aren't Lapita when you have human bones enshrined inside what is unmistakably a Lapita urn."

Several lines of evidence also undergird Spriggs's conclusion that this was a community of pioneers making their first voyages into the remote reaches of Oceania. For one thing, the radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal places them early in the Lapita expansion. For another, the chemical makeup of the obsidian flakes littering the site indicates that the rock wasn't local; instead it was imported from a large island in Papua New Guinea's Bismarck Archipelago, the springboard for the Lapita's thrust into the Pacific. This beautiful volcanic glass was fashioned into cutting and scraping tools, exactly the type of survival gear explorers would have packed into their canoes.

A particularly intriguing clue comes from chemical tests on the teeth of several skeletons. Then as now, the food and water you consume as a child deposits oxygen, carbon, strontium, and other elements in your still-forming adult teeth. The isotope signatures of these elements vary subtly from place to place, so that if you grow up in, say, Buffalo, New York, then spend your adult life in California, tests on the isotopes in your teeth will always reveal your eastern roots.

Isotope analysis indicates that several of the Lapita buried on Éfaté didn't spend their childhoods here but came from somewhere else. And while isotopes can't pinpoint their precise island of origin, this much is clear: At some point in their lives, these people left the villages of their birth and made a voyage by seagoing canoe, never to return.
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