Different teams of researchers digging in Vanuatu and Fiji said yesterday they had discovered the skull of an ancient tribe member buried in a pot and 3,000-year-old skeletons, developments that could provide new clues about a society that is believed to have spawned all Polynesian peoples.
"We're extremely excited -- it's the first so-called `pot burial' ever discovered in a prehistoric Pacific Island cemetery site," said Hallie Buckley, from the department of anatomy and structural biology at New Zealand's Otago University.
The skull was found at a site where 13 skeletons believed to belong to the Lapita people were found last year. Buckley, who is leading a team of researchers investigating the origins, relationships and health of the Lapita, found nine more skeletons recently.
The heads had been removed from the bodies, which had been buried with shell bracelets in their place.
Burial in pots occurred in some ancient societies in India, Europe and elsewhere. But it was not a custom previously associated with the Lapita.
Traces of the Lapita have been found in more than 100 other archaeological digs across the region. The name Lapita comes from the place in New Caledonia where one of the first discoveries of the pottery was made.
The Lapita are considered ancestors of all Pacific Islanders beyond the Solomon Islands and a crucial factor in the settlement of Polynesia -- a vast triangle of islands from Hawaii in the north, to New Zealand in the southeast and Easter Island in the east.
Among the remains found recently were those of infants, a discovery that was "especially exciting because this tells us that young babies were treated in a similar fashion to adults by the Lapita people," Buckley said. "These incredible finds will greatly aid our understanding of these elusive people."
Meanwhile, the discovery of 16 human skeletons believed to be 3,000 years old in Fiji provides other new evidence of the first settlement of that country by Lapita seafarers, scientists say.
A team from Fiji's University of the South Pacific and the Fiji Museum found the skeletons during a trip to Bourewa on the southwest of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.