By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, January) – Unusual find: Scientists excavating a 3,000-year-old cemetery at Teouma near the Vanuatu capital of Port Vila.

Head out east from Port Vila on the main road and just before you get to the White Sands Golf Club with its marvelous beaches, there is a place called Teouma.

Attractive enough, it really has not attracted much attention until a bulldozer driver changed all that a few months ago.

Its unusual black soil attracted the attention of a prawn farm developer who was collecting it to make embankments when the alert driver noticed distinctive shards of pottery.

They were bits of "Lapita" pottery. Known for its dentate style and named after a place in New Caledonia where the style was first recognized 50 years ago, Lapita is found across Melanesia and Polynesia.

It is associated with the mysterious "Lapita people" who, it’s theorized, evolved into modern Polynesians—the world’s biggest people by body mass.

Mixed in with the pottery were skeletons, some of them without their heads.

The Vanuatu National Museum alerted to the unusual find brought in New Zealand Historic Places Trust’s Stuart Bedford and the Australian National University’s Professor Matthew Spriggs to co-direct the excavation of what quickly proved to be a 3,000-year-old cemetery.

It puts Teouma on a scale of Fiji’s Sigatoka sand dunes where similar skeletons have been found, and offers the possibility of more clues to solving the mystery of Polynesian migration.

For Dr Hallie Buckley, of New Zealand’s University of Otago Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, who will lead an international team analyzing the bones, including DNA extraction, the Teouma discovery promises to shed more light on the puzzle of why a mysterious people moved rapidly across the South Pacific to become the world’s youngest race—Polynesians.

Buckley wonders if malaria might be found in the DNA and if the people represented by the Teouma bodies were fleeing the disease.

"There is a lot of talk in the archaeological circles about the role malaria had on the settlement of Pacific islands," she says. "If we can extract malaria DNA from the bones, it will go a long way to addressing these questions with some certainty."

Malaria, which kills three million people a year, has long been a significant factor in population health.

"If malaria was present in pre-historic Vanuatu, the theory is that the initial colonizers would have brought the parasite with them, in their blood.

Polynesia—a triangular area bounded by Hawaii in the north, Rapanui or Easter Island in the east and New Zealand in the south and occupied for no more than 3,000 years—is malaria free. In Melanesia—Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu—malaria is endemic although New Caledonia does not have it.

For reasons not understood, the pre-Polynesian people moved from Asia, probably Taiwan, through Melanesia so quickly over a 500-year period that it’s called the "Express Train theory". They had little contact with the Melanesians who had lived in their islands for up to 40,000 years on the way to Polynesia’s scattered islands. There they created a highly stratified culture complete with ornate chiefdoms not seen in Melanesia.

Buckley said the Teouma skeletons would be a vital clue in understanding the interaction that went on between the environment and first peoples as there had been no other people in Efate.

"Malaria probably had quite a significant and insidious effect on colonization," she says, "particularly if the people were trying to find a place free of malaria." The pathogen would have affected their ability to work and limit their population growth.

"Once they got to Polynesia, with relatively lower pathogen loads and no malaria whatsoever, then you see the development of highly stratified societies, huge population growth and very big robust people."

The Teouma bodies seemed different from the modern ni-Vanuatu people who are mostly Melanesian.

"Some of the skeletons from the site were incredibly robust, similar to what I have seen of more recent Polynesian collections," she says although stressing she had only had a preliminary look.

A decade ago, Otago University worked on 13 Lapita linked skeletons taken from sand dunes near Sigatoka, Fiji, regarded as a Melanesian/Polynesian contact point.

Sigatoka researchers noted how big the skeletons were, suggesting that in the Express Train theory, only the big survived long cold ocean voyages involved in settling Polynesia.

February 3, 2005

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