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Lapita People -

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Lapita People

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We know very little about one of the greatest diasporas in the history of humanity: the movement of
people across the pacific. But, over the last decade excavations at a most remarkable site in
Vanuatu are starting to flesh out the stories laid down over thousands of years. Dr Paul Willis
finds out what is being revealed about the Lapita people through their pottery, burial grounds and
the isotopes in some very old teeth.

NARRATION

We know very little about one of the greatest diasporas in the history of humanity: the movement of
people across the pacific. Enigmatic chards of beautiful pottery have spoken of the first culture
across these far flung islands. But until recently, we knew very little about the Lapita People.
All that has changed over the last decade with excavations at a most remarkable site in Vanuatu, on
the main island of Efate.

Dr Paul Willis

Three thousand years ago, the sea was just over there but in the meantime the land has risen around
8 metres. Three thousand years ago this rise used to be a headland and it was the perfect place to
bury you dead.

NARRATION

This site, called Teouma, has been the centre of research for archaeologist Matthew Spriggs.

Professor Matthew Spriggs

This is the first early Lapita cemetery that's been found and it's given us tremendous insights
into their attitudes to death, the rituals involved in burial and also gives us a context for one
use of the pottery which was fairly to accompany ah people ah in their graves.

NARRATION

I'd barely arrived at the Teouma Site when two more bodies were uncovered.

Dr Frederique Valentin

I'm cleaning bones of a small baby. This baby died at the time of birth or when he was a foetus.
This is the eighth baby we have found. And there is another in this corner opposite.

NARRATION

It does seem unusual, even macabre, that two skeletons from such young individuals are found so
close to each other. But that is only part of the story.

Dr Frederique Valentin

Speciality of this cemetery is to have adult and baby. No child. So we are wondering what happen
here. Is that a kind of ritual? Is that a general practice of Laptia People? We don't know yet. But
we hope to answer this question.

NARRATION

The delicate little bones are all faithfully recorded exactly where they were found in the site. So
far over 80 individuals have been found at Teouma and they tell us a lot about these long lost,
ancient people.

Dr Paul Willis

These are three beautifully preserved skulls. What can you tell me about them?

Dr Frederique Valentin

Those three skulls were found sitting in a hole on top of a chest of a fourth skeleton.

Dr Paul Willis

And I gather that even the jaw is, doesn't belong to this skull?

Dr Frederique Valentin

Yes effectively you have two males there, a, and a female in the middle, and another individual ah
represented by the mandible.

NARRATION

Teeth from the graves were sent to the ANU in Canberra for analysis. Here, they were zapped by a
laser and the vapours were analysed to accurately determine their chemical composition. From this
information they can work out some details of the ancient diet. And it's an unexpected result.

Ian Moffat

It seems like the men that we've analysed have a much more maritime dominated diet. But the women
from the site seem to eat food that's a lot more from the terrestrial realm.

NARRATION

So there's some kind of resource partitioning going on; perhaps the men were doing the travelling
at sea while the women stayed on shore. Another kind of analysis examines the ratio of elemental
isotopes in the teeth to work out where the individual might have come from. Once again, the
results are surprising.

Ian Moffat

What it seems to tell us is that the teeth that we've worked on are from individuals that grew up
in Vanuatu but not necessarily at the Teouma site.

NARRATION

Among the other treasures from the Teouma site is an abundance of pottery shards.

Professor Matthew Spriggs

It is a Lapita pot but it's not dentate stamped. It's been incised with a sharp tool. You can see
that it's got a sharp inflection there so it would be quite a large pot.

NARRATION

To make sense of the numerous shards of pots, I have to go back to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in
Port Vila, the capital. Here archaeologist Iarawoi Philips slowly pieces the pots back together.
His colleague Richard Shing uses drawings and computer scans to reconstruct the exquisitely
complicated designs on the pots.

Dr Richard Shing

By drawing all these patterns over the number of years, we have found out that they, they use like
something like a comb to stamp the tools but there are only a few different shapes which they use
like they have the curve and they have the line and they have the circle and that's it.

NARRATION

The results of all this reconstruction work are some of the most beautiful pots I think I have ever
seen.

Dr Paul Willis

It's the pottery that makes this site so important. Normally in a Lapita dig you'd expect to find a
couple of shards of one or two pots. Here there are pieces of over 100 pots and plates many of them
are almost complete. This one had a skull in it.

NARRATION

And that's one revelation from the Teouma cemetery excavation; the main use for the elaborate
Lapita pottery appears to be associated with burials of the dead.

Prof Stuart Bedford

Of more than fifty years of research, two hundred and fifty Lapita sites found across the
distribution from island New Guinea, right across to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, um there's only ever been
a handful of burials and many people speculated that because they were sort of sea going people
that perhaps most of the population was buried at sea.

Dr Paul Willis

You can tell great stories from little bits of rock. This is a piece of obsidian, the Lapita People
used it for making knives and blades. Now there's no way this came from Vanuatu.

NARRATION

Back at the ANU in Canberra, Christian Reepmeyer has been taking a closer look at these gleaming
flakes of glassy rock.

Christian Reepmeyer

I have a look at certain attributes from the obsidian to see how big they are and which direction
they were made. And the other thing I'm doing is um, I do a geochemistry analysis to find out where
they come from.

NARRATION

And it's the question of where they come from that yields the biggest surprise.

Christian Reepmeyer

These pieces came from West New Britain and that's about two and a half thousand kilometres away.

NARRATION

So while it had long been suspected that the Lapita people were moving about a lot, the obsidian
gives us a new insight into just how much travelling they were actually doing.

Professor Matthew Spriggs

My idea is that early on, they were really moving about on their canoes, very widely in the
Pacific, in fact to an extent that that never happened again until you started getting sailing
ships in the nineteenth century. You know people were more mobile three thousand years ago over
much of the Pacific than they ever were again until recent times.

Dr Paul Willis

The best of the pots are going on public display for the first time. Tonight is opening night, and
I've been invited!

NARRATION

It's really quite a big event!

Prof Stuart Bedford

These pots are so rare and in the exhibition here there are single examples, there are no others in
the world.

Professor Matthew Spriggs

Well they are seeing something for the first time which they have never seen. Which is their
history.

NARRATION

After a period on display here in Port Vila these pots are off to be exhibited in Paris. It's a
unique opportunity for the people of this tiny South Pacific nation to stand proudly on the world
stage and proclaim their heritage.