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Ask the Experts
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez
Matthew Spriggs
Matthew Spriggs and Stuart Bedford, archaeologists with the Australian National University, are experts in the Lapita colonization of the Pacific. Recently their work has focused on the inhabitants of the islands of Vanuatu, one of the first places the Lapita colonized when they began to sail long distances into the open ocean. Just a few years ago local construction workers discovered a Lapita cemetery on an island called Éfaté. National Geographic funded Spriggs and Bedford's excavations at the site, and they have found a wealth of data that sheds light on life and death in a Lapita community.

How old is the cemetery, and what has your work told you about the origins of the Lapita people, the earliest inhabitants of this region?

The cemetery—the interesting thing about it is that when the cemetery was in use there was no settlement nearby. We know of a Lapita culture settlement about three, four kilometers away, but I think the fact that the cemetery was found on its own with no associated settlement or village suggests that why we may not have found Lapita cemeteries before in the Pacific but only the village sites is that the cemeteries were separated from the villages and placed somewhere else.

We're getting radiocarbon dates directly on the bones of the skeletons, and the suggestion is that this is quite a short period of time. We need to do some more studies to calibrate the radiocarbon dates to calendar years. So we can't actually place an exact date on the cemetery at the moment. We think probably around 3,100 years ago, but all indications are from the dates that we have—the spread of dates—that it's a short period of time, perhaps only three or four generations at the most, that this cemetery was in use.

Buried with the bodies were large, decorated—highly decorated—Lapita pots. Now these pots are clearly of ceremonial use; they're not for cooking. They would be perhaps used often for, say, displaying food in feasts or displaying other objects. We know that they weren't just associated with burial rituals because we do find fragments of decorated pots in settlement sites as well. But clearly in this case we do have a direct association of the decorated pots with burials, and in at least two cases that we have—possibly three or four—we have the remains of individuals, once the flesh had decayed, collected together and placed in pots. So we actually have jar burial as one of the burial practices on the site, and jar burial is very important because it's common in Neolithic sites in island Southeast Asia, in places such as Taiwan and the northern Philippines. And to me this suggests a clear link between the burial practices of the Lapita people and the burial practices of contemporary and slightly earlier populations in island Southeast Asia, from whom we believe the Lapita people to have been descended.

Who is buried in the cemetery?

The cemetery is quite interesting in terms of its distribution of ages of people. We have a full range of adults, from fairly sort of young adults, perhaps teenagers even, through to extremely old people, and we also have some babies—sometimes real newborns and often, sadly, buried with their mothers, who may have died in childbirth. But we don't have any young children, and given this is pre-antibiotic times, of course—the people lived 3,000 years ago—one would expect a lot of early childhood morality. But apart from really young babies of only a few months old, we don't have the expected number of children, say, particularly in the first five years of life, where they were very vulnerable. And we also don't have any children between about five and, say, early to mid-teens. Whether this means that they were buried somewhere else—perhaps there was some sort of different symbolism about young people who died, children who died—they might have been considered differently than adults who died. It's possible that they're buried somewhere else in the cemetery, because we've only excavated about half of it. So at the moment, yes, we're missing what we would expect to be quite a large component of the population, which are children from somewhere between say one and perhaps 13, 14, 15 years old.

You and your colleague Stuart Bedford reported that most of these burials lacked skulls. Why would living people remove the skulls of the dead?

Yes, all of the burials—currently the burials of people actually sort of laid out in the ground—lack skulls. And these were obviously removed sometime after burial. We know they were originally in the graves because we do find occasional teeth, and as the body decays, teeth are often some of the first things to become loose and fall out. So we find the occasional teeth where the heads would have been. But the heads were removed sometime after burial, when presumably the flesh had largely decayed and they were able to take the heads away. These, we think, were perhaps placed in shrines or perhaps even kept in the houses—these skulls. But later on some were returned to the cemetery and were placed with the burials of other people. So, for instance, we have a very old male, and on his chest are three skulls and the jaw of a fourth person, although he, himself, his head has been removed at sometime after burial. In another case that we found last year, 2006, we had a case where there was a man buried—again he didn't have a head—but between his legs were three skulls of other people. And finally, there was a burial—where the head would usually be placed, instead there was a large decorated Lapita pot and inside it was the head of a woman. So the heads were removed. If we look at traditional beliefs in many parts of the Pacific, particularly in the west in Melanesia, the head is believed to be the seat of the soul, and so in many cases ancestors' heads are revered and kept in—or were until Christianity took over in the 19th and 20th centuries—heads were revered and kept in either houses or special skull shrines. So I think that there are some clues in traditional beliefs—pre-Christian beliefs—that were recorded in the western Pacific which give us some insights into the Lapita beliefs about death and the afterlife.