by Veronika Meduna
Hallie Buckley and Rebecca Kinaston excavating a skeleton at a late-Lapita cemetery site on Watom Island, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, in 2008.
In 2003, a digger driver who was excavating soil for a prawn farm on Vanuatu’s main island Efate discovered a richly decorated shard of pottery. He recognised it as something unusual and took it to the local museum, where a curator identified it as a piece typical for the pottery created by Lapita people. The serendipitous discovery sparked the interest of archaeologists from New Zealand and Australia, led by Stuart Bedford, who soon unearthed not just more pottery but human remains, confirming that the site was a Lapita cemetery and, at about 2800 years, possibly the oldest burial site in the Pacific region. The Lapita are ancestors of modern Polynesians and have dominated the exploration of and expansion into the Pacific. This site is thought to include some of the earliest people to make landfall in Vanuatu. After several seasons of excavation, the team unearthed a total of 67 burials, including nearly a hundred individuals, most of them headless. University of Otago bio-archaeologist Hallie Buckley has examined the bones to shed light on how these ancient explorers lived, what they grew and hunted, and the diseases they suffered.