Reading the Bones: A Taphonomic Analysis of Lapita Mortuary Practices

History Anthropology Archaeology Humanities Arts and Social Science (HASS) Lapita Indigenous knowledge Pacific Area

People carrying the Lapita culture, which first appeared in the Bismarck archipelago c. 3300 BP, were the first colonists of Remote Oceania. While over 200 Lapita sites have been identified throughout the Pacific, very few contain any skeletal remains. The scarcity of burials has limited insight into Lapita mortuary practices, actions that bring forth the most complete representation of an individual's biological, social and cultural identities. This research taphonomically examines the skeletal remains from three sites around the Pacific, of which two are Lapita. Taphonomic analysis can provide insights into the mortuary practices employed, including the timing and methods of bone removal and manipulation, both of which have previously been observed at Lapita burial sites.The sites examined are the Teouma cemetery in Vanuatu, the Reber-Rakival (SAC) cemetery on Watom, and the Lifafaesing (EUV) rockshelter in the Tanga Islands. Teouma is an Early Lapita burial ground (c. 3000 BP) from Remote Oceania; Reber-Rakival is a Middle to Late Lapita cemetery (c. 2500-2000 BP) in Near Oceania; and Lifafaesing is a Post-Lapita living space (c. 1020–790 BP) in Near Oceania. Both burial and non-burial remains have been recovered from these sites, allowing further analyses into the processes responsible for their different distributions. These three sites cover differences in chronological time, geographical space, and site use, allowing for comparative analyses.This research has uncovered evidence of complex mortuary practices in burials from each site; however, the extent to which these practices affect burials varies between sites. Taphonomic differences between the burial and non-burial remains from Reber-Rakival indicate that both natural and human disturbances separated some skeletal remains from the burials. Conversely, taphonomic similarities dismissed this interpretation for the Teouma non-burial remains, but did reveal that all human bone at that site underwent complex mortuary practices.

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