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Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia
(Southern Melanesia): A Review
Frédérique Valentin* and Christophe Sand**
The diversity of the burial places and the variety of the body and bones treatments are the main
qualities of burials related to the nearly 3000 years of prehistory of New Caledonia, from the Lapita
cultural complex to the traditional Kanak cultural complex. The oldest burials known at present are
interments dated from the very end of first phase of settlement of New Caledonia archipelago and dis-
covered in the site of Lapita at Foué (Koné). The inhumation is also a funerary treatment used during
the following two millennia, besides other practices such as the deposit of the deceased on the soil sur-
face or in canoe in caves. The inhumation was definitive or temporary, as indicated by secondary
deposits or by remains of exhumation identified from the beginning of the second millennium A.D.,
date of the emergence of the Kanak cultural complex. The body was not systematically eliminated. Its
integrity was sometimes preserved through artificial mummification processes. The paper reviews the
existing archaeological documentation following a chronological framework and draws on cultural
and social significances and changes over time of the treatment of the deceased.
KKeeyy WWoorrddss:: New Caledonia, archaeology, burial practices, human remains, Pacific
Located east of Australia between 20° and 22° south, the New Caledonia archipelago
forms the southernmost part of the Melanesian crescent. It comprises distinct parts charac-
terised by differing geological origins and conditions. 400 km long by 50 km across, the
mainland of Grande Terre is a long, narrow landmass composed of complex geological for-
mations of Gondwana origin. It has a mountainous ridge running down its centre, separat-
ing leeward and windward coasts. Numbers of small islands lie off its tips, notably the Isle
of Pines 50 km to the southeast and the Belep group to the northwest. The Loyalty group
includes three main islands, from north to south Ouvéa, Lifou, Maré, and various small
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
*CNRS Researcher, CNRS UMR 7041, Maison de l’Archéologie et de l’Ethnologie
** Head of Département Archéologie, Département Archéologie de la Nouvelle-Calédonie,
Direction des Affaires Culturelles et Coutumières
islands, comprising remote Walpole, the southernmost outpost of the Loyalty chain.
Formed on a volcanic substratum, the Loyalties consist of uplifted coral platforms with
karstic relief of various elevations.
The human history of the archipelago begins about 3000 years ago and burials have
been placed around settled areas since that time. However, while household features, habi-
tation structures, village organisation and economic systems have been studied in some
detail (e.g. Davidson et al., 2002; Guillaud and Forestier, 1998; Sand, 1995a, 1996a, 1997a,
1999, 2002a), burial practices have been seldom investigated until now. Although often
mentioned in archaeological publications (e.g. Avias, 1950; Frimigacci and Siorat, 1988;
Galipaud, 1988, 1996, 1997; Gifford and Shutler, 1956; Leenhardt, 1947; Sand, 1995a and b),
funerary treatments have not been yet the focus of sustained bioarchaeological study.
To illuminate New Caledonia prehistoric mortuary practices, the present paper reviews
the existing archaeological documentation. Table 1 summarises the findings that are firstly
presented here following a chronological order. The New Caledonian prehistoric chronolo-
gy comprises three main parts: the Lapita period corresponding to the first centuries of set-
tlement and starting around 1100–1000 B.C. with the “Lapita cultural complex”; an interme-
diate period showing clear distinctions between the north and the south of Grande Terre,
and a period of development of a “traditional Kanak cultural complex” over the last 1000
years before European contact at the end of the 18th century A.D. (Galipaud, 1988; Sand,
1995a, 1996b, 1997b, 2000, 2001a and b, Sand et al. 2000). Following this chronological pat-
tern, the burials reviewed here have been divided in three groups: the oldest burials of the
Lapita and post-Lapita periods, first millennium A.D. burials and second millennium A.D.
burials of the “traditional Kanak cultural complex”. In a second part, the paper draws on
cultural and social significances and changes over time in the treatment of the dead in past
New Caledonian communities.
a. The oldest New Caledonian burials (1st millennium BC)
The oldest burials currently known in New Caledonia are interments related to the first
millennium BC but after the fabrication of Lapita pottery had ended. They have been dis-
covered in different localities near the seashore at the site of Lapita, on the Foué Peninsula
on the northwest coast of Grande Terre (fig. 1).
Two skeletons related to the first millennium B.C. have been described in a series of
reports (Dédane and Kazarérhou, 1988; Galipaud, 1997; Pietrusewsky et al., 1998; Shutler,
1967). Shutler (1967) recovered the first at locality WKO013C in 1967. The sepulchral pit
contained an individual in a sitting position with a complete ceramic pot covering the skull
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Table 1: Summary of the main New Caledonian prehistoric burials sites known through archaeological researches.
Site name chronological attribution Burial description Geographical location References
Lapita (WKO013C) first millenium BC open-air site, primary, definitive inhumations, seated, pot
covering the skull North-west Grande Terre Shutler 1967, Valentin Sand 2000
Lapita (WKO013B) first millenium BC open-air site, primary, definitive inhumations, decubitus
lateral North-west Grande Terre Dédane Kasarhérou 1988,
Pietrusewsky et al. 1998
Tüü first millenium AD open-air site, mound, several primary definitive
inhumation, various positions Isle of Pines Frimigacci 1979
Tiouandé first millenium AD rock-shelter, several primary in-ground inhumations North-east Grande Terre Sand 2001, Valentin 2001
Balabio ?open-air site, primary inhumations, crouched North Grande Terre Galipaud 1988
Hnenigec first millenium AD rockshelter, several above-ground inhumations Maré, Loyalty Sand 1995a
La Roche first millenium AD open-air site, several primary inhumations, hyperflexed,
cemetery Maré, Loyalty Maitre 1977, Valentin Sand 2000
Lapita (WKO013A) second millenium AD open-air site, primary inhumations, seated, revisited for
bone removal (exhumation) North-west Grande Terre Valentin Sand 2000, Valentin
Sand 2001
Ihusie second millenium AD open-air site, primary inhumations, flexed South-west Grande Terre Sand Ouetcho 1992
Anse Vata second millenium AD open-air site, primary inhumations, flexed South-west Grande Terre Gifford Shutler 1956
Naïa second millenium AD open-air site, primary inhumations, flexed, decubitus lateral South-west Grande Terre Smart nd
Ilot Vert second millenium AD open-air site, stone mound, inhumations South-west Grande Terre Frimigacci Siorat 1988
Qanono second millenium AD open-air site, primary inhumations, hyperflexed Lifou, Loyalty Sand 1995a, 1995b
Pheu second millenium AD rockshelter, primary and secondary in-ground
inhumations, extended Maré, Loyalty Hartweg 1950
Walpole second millenium AD rockshelters, several above-ground inhumations Walpole Dunn 1967, Sand 2004
Nonimé second millenium AD rockshelter, several above-ground inhumations, some
associated with woodens items (pole, canoe) Lifou, Loyalty Valentin Bolé 2001
Hnajoisisi second millenium AD rockshelter and ledge, several above-ground inhumations,
some associated with woodens items (pole, canoe) Lifou, Loyalty Valentin Bolé 2001
Faténaoué second millenium AD rockshelter, several mummies associated with vegetable
basket, seated North-west Grande Terre Leenhardt 1930, 1947, Valentin et
al. 2001
(Shutler, 1967(1)). The pot is a large bowl exhibiting paddle-impressed decorations of
Podtanéan style, which suggests that the interment occurred at the end of the Lapita period.
Sex and age at death of the skeleton were not specified at the time of excavation and Shutler
was not allowed to export the remains for further study. The skeleton of a male about 30–40
years old, that is believed to come from this grave, is held by the New Caledonian Museum.
It is dated to about 850 B.C. (bone sample: 2700+/–80 BP, Beta 125136, calibrated to 1015
(830) 780 B.C., Valentin and Sand, 2000).
The second burial was exposed during a hurricane in 1988 at locality WKO013B. No
sepulchral pit was identified and no grave goods or personal ornaments were associated
with the skeleton, which is attributed to a female of approximately 35- to 45-year-old
(Pietrusewsky et al., 1998). Two bone samples have been radiocarbon dated and have
returned two very different results. Although this is problematical, the authors place the
burial around the middle of the first millennium B.C. on the basis of archaeological and
stratigraphic considerations (Pietrusewsky et al., 1998). Renewed work on locality
WKO013B has allowed to finally associate the burial with an occupation layer dated to 380
cal BC (Beta 179503) (Sand, 2007). From Dédane and Kazarérhou’s field notes (1988) it can
be determined that the body was placed on its right side in a tightly flexed position, facing
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
(1) At Lapita site 13, “L’avancement du travail a permis de mettre au jour une sépulture mise en terre apparem-
ment après l’occupation du site par les gens de culture “Lapita”. Cette sépulture était composée d’un squelette en
position assise.( ) le crâne coiffé d’une poterie entière. .?” (Shutler 1967).
Fig. 1: Map of the New Caledonian archipelago and burial sites locations.
the sea in a west-east orientation, with its head to the west. The arms were along the side of
the corpse, the forearms folded on the abdomen, with the left hand on the right forearm.
The lower limbs were hyperflexed with the feet in contact with the pelvis (Valentin, 2003).
b. First millennium AD burials
The first millennium AD was a phase of major transformations and diversification of
the cultural traditions. Aside from some mortuary use of pots as containers for bones (Avias
1950; Galipaud, 1988; Sand, 1995b, 1996b; Sand and Ouetcho, 1993), burial locations were
diversified in multiple ways, ranking from artificial mounds to rock-shelters and open-air
During this phase, numerous burial mounds were built on the Isle of Pines, to the south
of Grande Terre (fig. 1). Located near the seashore, the Tüü tumulus had been partially
destroyed by quarrying by the time it was studied but it is supposed to have once been 30
m in diameter and over 2 m high (Frimigacci, 1979). The study revealed two stratigraphic
levels containing interments (Frimigacci, 1979, pers. comm. 2000). The lower level, above a
basal level dated to 1930+/–70 BP (UW 655, calibrated A.D. 50 (80) 245), contained at least
one complete adult skeleton, dated to 1440 +/– 35 BP (UW 766, calibrated A.D. 560 (635)
660). The body was on its right side, apparently in a hyperflexed position, knees against the
chest (Frimigacci, 1979:22, figure15). The second level contained a complete skeleton of a
male about 40 years old (Charpin, 1983). It was on its back in extension. The surface level
included many disarticulated and scattered human bones that Frimigacci (1979) regards as
representing incomplete skeletons. A bone sample returned the early date of 1845 +/– 65 BP
(UW 765, calibrated A.D. 30 (160) 370). Disturbance by quarrying can explain the condition
of the surface level. According to Frimigacci (1979: 21), “
ce tertre funéraire est une sépulture
collective, il a été édifié au fur et à mesure des inhumations
” [the funeral mound is a collec-
tive grave which was built up by successive inhumations].
The available data suggest that the skeletons were not subject to intentional postdeposi-
tional handling. The inhumations were apparently primary and definitive, displaying varia-
tions in positional modes and an expansion of the tumulus by addition of sedimentary lev-
els. This description does not strictly match the conventional definition of “collective” burial
(Duday et al., 1990; Masset, 1997). The lack of handling and the primary situation of inter-
ment are rarely observed in true “collective” burials in which successive single primary
interments are disposed, causing disturbances amongst the previously decomposed bodies.
True “collective” burials are rather characterized by post-depositional handlings and in situ
re-arrangements of selected bones. Additionally, the succession of stratigraphic levels is
another aspect that does not match the conventional definition of “collective” burials, which
supposes a single pit, or cave, for several bodies. One possibility which might better explain
the Tüü site in terms of funerary practices is to suppose a succession of single interments in
a durable cemetery area, but further observations are needed to ascertain this hypothesis.
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Archaeological researches in the Tiouandé karstic region on the northeast coast of
Grande Terre (fig. 1) discovered burials in stratigraphic context in a group of rockshelters
located in a coral cliff about 1.5 km from the sea (Sand, 2001c). It comprises a sizeable main
shelter of some 9 m by 4 m in plan by 6 m high, which displays painted hands on one of its
walls, and a second shelter of about 10 m2and 3 m high. Both shelters contain burials in lev-
els dated to the first millennium A.D., as well as entire, fragmented and burnt scattered
human bones.
Excavation in the second rockshelter identified a sepulchral pit that was only partially
investigated because it was present only in a corner of the test-unit. It was covered by a set
of flat stones and contained disarticulated post-cranial bones of a single subadult of about
15–20 years old, and a skull the mandible in articulation showing its underside. No grave
goods or ornaments were encountered. The bones that were collected correspond to two
neighbouring anatomical segments, the thorax and the left shoulder, which are represented
by nearly all their bones, even the un-fused humerus and radius proximal epiphysis
(Valentin, 2001). This set of bones may come from a secondary deposit, as ribs and vertebrae
can be removed and transferred with other bones such as the long bones and/or the skull.
However, if such practices existed in New Caledonia, they do not have any local ethnohis-
torical parallels although other kinds of secondary deposits, like skulls deposits (fig. 2), are
documented (Bourgarel, 1865; Leenhardt, 1930; Vieillard and Deplanche, 2001 [1863];
Sarasin, 1917). It is more plausible that the remains represent a primary burial subsequently
disarticulated by either funerary activity or taphonomic processes. It is suggested by the fact
that the small secondary ossification points were found near the main ossification points. In
this context, the disarticulation of the thorax and the unexpected skull position may result
from the presence of a container which has decayed slower than the cadaver and/or from
the seated position of the corpse.
The sepulchral pit in the main rockshelter contained, at its base, adult remains but no
grave goods or ornaments. It has been partially studied because the skeleton was discov-
ered in a profile of the test-unit. The individual was on the back in a flexed position with the
skull at the abdomen level. Even if anatomical relationships were maintained in articulation
in some regions, like the thorax and the pelvis, others were clearly disjointed, like the right
shoulder. Available data are insufficient to interpret bone misplacements but suggest pri-
mary interment because of the presence of nearly complete feet and hands in the basal fill of
the sepulchral pit. In addition, the inventory of bones recovered from the base of the pit and
investigation of pair-matching and articulation (Duday, 1987a) show the presence of the
two well-represented feet of a second adult at the same level. Additionally, the upper level
of this test-unit revealed evidence interpreted as the remains of others disturbed burials
(Valentin, 2001). Three observations indicate these may be primary interments. First, the
bones collection includes many hand and foot bones that are rarely involved in secondary
burial deposits (Duday et al., 1990; Masset, 1997). Second, there are several bone associa-
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
tions (articulation and pair) which are admissible evidence for single skeleton re-attribution
according to recent experiments (Villena I Mota, 1997; Villena I Mota et al., 1996). Last, there
are no defleshing marks (Binford, 1981; Lyman, 1994; White, 1992) or other traces on the
bones. In both rockshelters, additional adult and subadult entire bones and some fragment-
ed and burnt human bones were found in the sepulchral pit and in the test-units fills. They
are interpreted as resulting from pre-existing disturbed primary or secondary deposits
because they do not display traces that may be connected with other practices like cannibal-
The Tiouandé burials are reminiscent of another interment tentatively dated to the
same period. Excavated in an open-air site on Balabio Island, off the northern tip of Grande
Terre, an articulated skeleton was in a crouched position, the skull turned towards the north
end of the island, in a small pit covered with two flat stones. A level dated to 1830+/–160
BP (ANU–4926) covered the burial (Galipaud, 1988, 1997).
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Fig. 2: “Alignment of chief’s heads in a Kanak family shrine, as observed at the beginning of
the XXth century” (New Caledonian Museum Archives).
The Hnenigec site illustrates another kind of funerary situation in rockshelters (fig. 1).
Located on Maré in the Loyalties, the Hnenigec rockshelter is situated on an uplifted coral
platform about 1.5 km inland. Of unknown dimensions because nearly fully destroyed by
quarrying, the site contained a buried sepulchral level of about 15 cm thick at the base of the
stratigraphy. Three radiocarbon analyses date it to the first half of the first millennium A.D.
(Sand, 1998(2)). Partial excavation of the sepulchral level revealed about 130 human remains
and an associated fragment of cone-shell bracelet. In all cases, bones were isolated and lack
evidence for anatomical relationships (Sand, 1995a). Representing at least 7 individuals, the
remains comprise complete and fragmented bones and teeth of at least 4 subadults of vari-
ous age at death, including a foetus/newborn, children about three and five years old and
one adolescent, as well as at least 3 adults of both sexes.
The bone inventory shows that all anatomical regions of the human skeleton are repre-
sented, even small hand and foot bones and isolated teeth. More relevant than frequency
analysis (Duday, 1987b), comparative analysis of bone weight by anatomical region evi-
dences an apparent under-representation in cranial bones but no statistically-significant dif-
ference between reference values (Lowrance and Latimer, 1957) and the observed distribu-
tion (Valentin and Sand, 2000). A search for bones from the same individual revealed sever-
al associations between fragmented, symmetrical and joint-related bones. These observa-
tions, along with the small size of the burial place, suggest that the assemblage comprises
complete bodies which decomposed in situ and thus primary burials rather than secondary
Most of the bones are brown-reddish in colour, with superficial grey calcite formation
and very few traces of damage by roots. No evidence for pig, dog or rodent activities were
found. These observations suggest a short period of exposure of the bones to weathering
(Berensmeyer, 1978; Binford, 1981; Fisher, 1995; Lyman, 1994; Tappen, 1969, 1971), during
which interval the skeletons were disarticulated and bones scattered and possibly broken,
as 70% of them were fragments. Following Villa and Mahieu’s (1991) criteria, breakage pat-
tern indicates that most long bones were dry when broken. Evidence for heating occurs on
11% of bones, as revealed by colour modifications (from brown to grey-white colour) and,
in some cases, by irregular lengthwise splitting and warping. Heating damage and associat-
ed breakages probably occurred during occupation which followed the burial period, as
there are large quantities of charcoal and ash in the level above. This set of data suggests
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
(2) At Hnenigec (Maré island), a charcoal from the base of the disturbed stratigraphy was dated to 1210+/–110 BP
(Beta 89087) calibrated 655 (885) 1040 AD, the above layer was dated to 510+/–110 BP (Beta 82664) calibrated 1295
(1435) 1655 AD. A bone sample has returned a date of 1775+/–60 BP (Lyon-521 (OxA)), calibrated 125 (250) 400
AD (Sand 1998).
inhumations above the ground, and that cremation and bone breaking were not part of
Hnenigec funerary rituals. But it does not enable us to determine whether the burials were
simultaneous or successive, neither to assess the question of bone removal.
Excavations at the site of La Roche on Maré in the Loyalties revealed a cemetery dated
to about 1000 A.D. (fig. 1). Maître (1977, 1978) excavated and described four of the burials.
In three of them, the bones were recovered about 30 cm under the surface, directly on the
natural coral substratum. The fourth was in earth, 15 cm under the surface. Excavation
found no structures but there was a gravel layer just under the topsoil. No grave goods or
ornaments were associated with the skeletons, which have been studied in some detail
(Charpin, n.d., 1983; Evin, 1981; Sand, 1995b; Valentin and Sand, 2000). Fragments of the
bones have been dated to 1040 +/–110 AD (Ly 2310, calibrated AD 775 (1010) 1230).
The remains represent at least six individuals, of which five are represented by several
bones. They are adolescents and adults of various ages at death and of both sexes. Body
positions are reported in Maitre (1977: 4; 1978: 4(3)). Written accounts and photographs lead
to the following description. The bodies were hyperflexed, placed in one case on the back
and in three on the left or right sides. In one burial (fig. 3), the lower limbs were tightly
flexed with the knee at the chest level, the right patella was misplaced and the left knee was
disarticulated; the articulated feet touched the pelvis; the middle part of the spine displayed
a disjunction; the thorax volume was partly maintained, and the upper limbs were flexed
against the chest. This skeleton displays a series of misplacements of bones that unfortu-
nately cannot be interpreted relaying only on the available documentation. Maître (1977,
1978) tentatively suggests the possible use of bonds to tie the bodies. This hypothesis needs
to be tested by more accurate bioarchaeological analyses, like the hypothesis of mats wrap-
ping which is mentioned in ethnohistorical records on Maré (Dubois, 1968).
c. Second millennium A.D. burial traditions of the “traditional Kanak cultural
The end of the first millennium A.D. in New Caledonia exhibits perceptible indications
of a cultural dynamic emphasizing the emergence of the “traditional Kanak cultural com-
plex”, with the intensification of landscape use and new developments in exchanges
between Grande Terre and the Loyalties (Sand, 1998, 2001b; Sand et al., 2000). A series of
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
(3) At La Roche (Maré island), «trois des squelettes étaient couchés sur le coté, mais suivant des orientations
différentes, dans une position si contractée qu’elle suppose l’emploi de liens: les cuisses et les jambes étaient
ramenées contre la poitrine, les bras étaient également ramenés contre la poitrine, et les mains recouvraient l’une
sur la face, l’autre sur la nuque. Le quatrième présentait les mêmes caractéristiques mais était couché sur le dos .
La position de la tête, dans deux cas au moins, se trouvait dans un plan tout à fait anormal par rapport au reste
du corps» (Maître 1977: 4; 1978: 4)
burials related to this traditional period have been excavated, that can be compared to the
Kanak oral traditions and the European descriptions of indigenous funerary behaviours
observed in the 19th century.
A burial dated to the turn of the second millennium A.D. was excavated at the site of
Lapita, on the Foué peninsula near Koné (fig. 1). The small pit, located about 100 meters
from the present-day seashore, was about 45 cm long and 30 cm wide, containing the skele-
tal remains of a subadult 13 to 15 years old associated with a
bracelet. A human
bone sample was radiocarbon dated to 1100 +/– 40 BP (Beta 125135, calibrated 880 (975)
1015 A.D.; Sand, 1996c; Valentin and Sand, 2000). The discovery of this burial during strati-
graphic excavations has facilitated taphonomic analyses related to the timing of body
decomposition (Duday, 1995, 1997; Duday and Sellier, 1990; Duday et al., 1990; Duday and
Guillon 2006; Ubelaker, 1989). Most of the time, analyses of this kind are not possible in
New Caledonia owing to the fortuitous nature of most finds during non-archaeological
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
Fig. 3: Example of a hyperflexed body position in the cemetery of La Roche (Maré island)
(Photo J.P. Maître).
A part of the skeleton including the shoulder girdle and the upper limbs, the thorax,
the pelvis and the feet was still in articulation in the northwest corner of the pit, while a
group of disarticulated bones representing the lower limbs, the forearms and the hands lay
to the southeast (fig. 4). The right femoral diaphysis was placed in reverse position with the
femoral head touching the proximal extremities of the tibias. Macroscopic examination of
the quite well-preserved skeletal material did not reveal any cut marks, intentional frac-
tures, or signs of exposure to heat. The bone inventory evidences the lack of the skull,
including the mandible, and of the left femoral diaphysis. Both of these skeletal components
were nevertheless present at the moment of interment, as attested by the discovery of three
teeth and of the un-fused left femoral epiphysis in the sepulchral pit fill. Detailed analysis of
bone locations and relationships has enabled reconstitution of the initial inhumation posi-
tion of the body and some of the succeeding events associated with other funerary activities.
The cadaver was initially placed in the pit in a sitting position facing southeast, with the
knees against the shoulders and the upper and lower limbs tightly flexed. This is evidenced
by the presence of the proximal right tibia and distal right radius un-fused epiphyses
against the proximal end of the humerus. In a later phase, following the body decomposi-
tion, the skull and the femora were removed and the remaining bones were handled in situ.
This burial of an adolescent represents a primary inhumation which was subsequently
revisited and partly exhumed (Valentin and Sand, 2001; Valentin, 2003).
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Fig. 4: Adolescent burial from the site of Lapita (WKO013A, Koné, northwest Grande Terre).
Inhumation was also used at the beginning of second millennium in the south of
Grande Terre (fig. 1). It is illustrated by the recovery of a small round pit dug in the sand of
a beach ridge and of two associated skeletons found eroding in Ihusie Bay near Nouméa.
The sepulchral structure, being 55–60 cm deep and 45 cm wide, contained the skeletal
remains of a approximately 40-year-old male and an elderly female (Valentin and Sand,
2000). The burial was dated on bone samples to about 1200 A.D. (Sand, 1995b(4)). The pres-
ence of a single pit and of two skeletons has suggested the hypothesis of a double inhuma-
tion (Sand and Ouetcho, 1992). The lack of bones, especially of the skull and the right lower
limb, observed in both individuals may result from ancient ritual removal but also from
erosion of the site or more recent clandestine removal, as the site discovery was accidental
(Valentin and Sand, 2001).
Several interments with similar characteristics have been mentioned in the southwest
of Grande Terre (fig. 1). Unfortunately they were recovered during quarrying and have
been subject to very limited observations. Their chronological context is unknown. For
example, Avias (1950:132) reports that about 20 identical burials, containing each a complete
skeleton in a crouched position, were found in 1943 at Ouémo (Nouméa). Burials have also
been frequently exposed by natural erosion (Charpin 1983; Galipaud, 1996, 1997; Gifford
and Shutler 1956; Sand 1994). At Anse Vata site (Nouméa), a body “
was flexed, oriented
south, with the skull missing. Vertebrae, pelvis, some ribs, leg and foot bones lay undis-
turbed. The vertebrae and pelvis lay under the femora indicating that the burial had been
placed on its back. The rest of the bones found were scattered in soil under the burial. The
skull may have eroded out or may not have been placed with the burial
” (Gifford and
Shutler, 1956: 5). At the Naïa site (north of Nouméa,) (Smart, n.d.: 4) “
Very few of the buri-
als examined were in condition permitting determination of the original manner of dispos-
al. The two or three that were, however, were quite uniform in their placement and strati-
graphic position. As far as could be determined these few had been flexed and placed on
their side in a small rounded hole of just sufficient size to contain them. No offerings were
placed with them. In so far as undisturbed bones always appeared to lie in a position of
articulation it is assumed that the burials were primary
” (fig. 5).
All these interments can be regarded as single primary deposits in which bodies were
placed in a flexed position, sitting or lying on their sides. In at least two sites, available data
evidence the completeness of several skeletons at the time of their discovery, and therefore
at their interment. Avias (1950: 132) highlights the completeness of the Ouémo skeletons,
which is, according to him, an unusual feature of the recent New Caledonian funerary prac-
tices. Drawing by Smart (n.d.: fig. 5) leads to the same assumption for the Naïa interment.
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
(4) The Ihusie bone samples have been dated to 850+/–70 BP (Beta 56288), calibrated 1025 (1220) 1290 AD and 860
+/–70 BP (Beta 112994), calibrated 1020 (1205) 1285 AD (Sand, 1995b).
In addition, some burials from the southwest region of Grande Terre remain more enig-
matic. This is the case with a burial contemporaneous with Nera-tradition pottery that has
been examined on Ilot Vert (Green Islet), off Nessadiou (Frimigacci and Siorat, 1988).
Excavation of one of the stone mounds there exposed a very incomplete skeleton represent-
ed by three teeth and the lower limbs in the central part of the structure.
The mid-second millennium A.D. funerary practices are also illustrated by examples
from the Loyalty Islands and Walpole, the southernmost outpost of the Loyalties chain,
135km southeast of Maré (fig. 1). Indeed during this period, deceased children between 6
and 18 months old at death and young and old adults were placed in Walpole rockshelters
(Valentin and Sand, 2000; Valentin, 2002). The radiocarbon dating of one bone that has been
collected in 1967 by Chevalier indicates a death in the mid-15th century (Ly 8308, 455 +/– 40
BP, calibrated 1415 (1440) 1605 A.D.). The collection, held at the New Caledonian Museum,
was gathered from several caves. The bone inventory shows that all segments of the skele-
ton are represented, including small hand and foot bones and isolated teeth. The last are fre-
quently missing in secondary deposits sites because they get left in the primary place of
decomposition of the body (Duday et al., 1990; Masset, 1997). Articulation and pair-match-
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Fig. 5: Example of Naïa burial, drawing by C. Smart.
ing investigations indicate the presence of associations revealing that several bones belong
to the same individual (Valentin, 2002). These characteristics of the assemblage suggest that
the bones were collected in above-ground primary burials. In addition, adult skulls, restrict-
ed to only some teeth and a mandible, are under-represented in the Walpole skeletal collec-
tion. On the other hand, sub-adult skulls, although more fragile and more susceptible to
taphonomic damage, are well represented. As suggested by Dunn (1967), this feature may
be included in a complex funerary procedure comprising the handling and transferring of
skulls, like those practiced on Grande Terre, but it may also just result from investigators
sampling bias.
Dune quarrying at Qanono on Lifou led to the recovery of several human burials. One
of them was dated to 340+/–60 BP (calibrated 1440 (1570) 1950 A.D.; Sand, 1995a and b).
Salvage excavation of the partially-preserved adult skeleton indicates that the body was
interred lying on its back in a hyperflexed position with its knees against its chest (Sand and
Ouetcho, 1993: 83–85). Another variant of inhumation has been observed in the Pheu sepul-
chral cave on Maré, dated 1680 +/– 120 A.D. (Lv 483, 270 +/– 120 B. P., Dubois n.d.: 21).
Hartweg (1950) provides a map and description of the funerary site, a small cave with two
entrances containing the remains of several adults and subadults. Of particular interest is a
burial pit located at the back of the shelter, perpendicular to its axis and main entrance, ori-
ented east-west, and protected by a low wall. The excavation exposed the complete skeleton
of a male adult in a fully extended supine position. To the west, the skull was under a pile
of stones and turned towards the south and the second entrance intentionally closed up
with stones. Near the knees of the adult was the skull of a four-year-old child.
Other undated but prehistoric funerary structures have been observed on the Walpole
central plateau (Anonym in Sand, 2002b, 2004). They consist of mounds-like graves formed
with various kinds of coral blocks. One particularly large (4m long) one is surrounded by a
large, walled enclosure. Such elaborate funerary architecture was unknown in other New
Caledonian regions (Sand, 2004), though various cairns or funerary stone-mounds have
been described, for example, on Ilot Vert (Frimigacci and Siorat, 1988).
Rockshelters, caves and crevices in karstic areas of the Loyalty Islands and Grande
Terre were frequently used for mortuary purposes at the European contacts period (fig. 6).
For example, they constitute about 25% of the cultural sites recorded in the Wetr district on
Lifou (Sand et al., 1999). The deceased were placed on ledges or in cavities in cliffs along the
coast. In the most recent of them, it can still be observed that bodies have been wrapped in
mats and extended on pieces of canoe, raft or wood platforms, while large, decorative door-
frames may have been used at Ouvéa (Sand, 1995a and b; Sand et al., 1994; Valentin and
Bolé, 2001). Wooden poles used for body transportation were left in situ. A possible connec-
tion between the minimum number of individuals, estimated at seven, and the number of
poles, 14, have been detected in a Lifou case (Valentin and Bolé, 2001). Are these poles an
indication of shaft use? According to Dubois (1968), such a practice was common on Maré
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
during the 19th century. If so, it is noteworthy that this mode of transportation of the corpse
is different from that illustrated on an engraved bamboo held at the Geneva ethnographic
museum (Dellenbach and Lobsiger, 1939: 338, Pl I), which shows the use of only one pole.
Several rockshelters contain the remains of several bodies which were deposited in the
same place over time, at least on Lifou, forming “collective” burials rather than multiple-
individual primary interment (Valentin and Bolé, 2001). At least in some cases this funerary
mode seems devoted to sex-selected bodies. A female ossuary is mentioned on Maré
(Dubois, 1968) and a Lifou rockshelter contained mainly elderly male remains (Valentin and
Bolé, 2001). Single burials are also observed, containing a deceased that may have been
selected according to his or her status. This was the case on Maré during the 18th and 19th
centuries, when chiefs were buried separately from the rest of the population (Dubois,
1968). In most cases, these places show scattered bones owing to various agents of distur-
bance, including more recent re-placement of selected bones to increase their visibility and
the sacred nature of the place. Similar behaviors of the present day populations exist all
over the Pacific Islands (i. e. Anton and Steadman, 2003). Thus, the distinction between pri-
mary and secondary burial is rarely firmly established but both situations are known.
Secondary burials are attested by skull deposits in various localities of Grande Terre
(Bourgarel, 1865; Leenhardt, 1930: Pl XXI; Sarasin, 1917; Vieillard and Deplanche 2001
[1863]) but not in the Loyalties.
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
Fig. 6: View of a funerary rockshelter in a cliff (Lifou).
Some rockshelters contain articulated skeletons which sometimes present the remains
of dry ligaments maintaining some joints. Natural mummification process was observed in
the Loyalty Islands, as on Lifou for example (Bonnafont, 1871). After a century in place
according to oral information, naturally-mummified bodies from Lifou are still supple and
fat, and still have nails and hair (Valentin and Bolé, 2001). But, on the other hand, artificial
mummification is known from the north of Grande Terre, as exemplified by the Faténaoué
site (Voh region, Leenhardt, 1947). Located on top of a karstic peak, the small shelter con-
taining the mummified remains has two openings for air circulation. The wider, facing
south-west, is partly closed by a low wall protecting human remains including two well
preserved mummies of adults. Facing south-west, they are in a crouched position with the
limbs against the chest, and bound in a basket made from vegetable matter (fig. 7).
Constriction of the shoulders suggests that bodies were tightly tied (Valentin et al., 2001).
Shelter characteristics and body position may have facilitated corpse preservation. However
both bodies show a lack of hair and nail, with very dry, hard soft tissues containing little fat,
but no evidence for evisceration or brain removal. This evidence is interpreted as a result of
artificial treatment like fire and smoke curing and/or sun exposure. This bioarcheological
result accords with the mummification protocols described in oral traditions. Analysis of a
bone sample indicates that one of these two adults died between 1888 and 1916 (following a
forensic technique). However, the practice may be more ancient than that, as suggested by
the variety of the preservation stages of the remains at the site.
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
Fig. 7: Mummies of Faténaoué (Voh, northwest Grande Terre).
The archaeological data presented in this paper provide an overall view of the physical
aspect of the burials in New Caledonia before Christian times. This sample reflects an aston-
ishing diversity of behaviors depending of the time period and the geographic location,
Although necessarily imperfect and incomplete, it allow nevertheless to underline a series
of characteristics of cultural and social significances, and short and long-term transforma-
tions of the practices over time.
a. Cultural and social significances
The presented data shows variations in the sepulchral location, in the mode of deposi-
tion, and of the body treatment as well as age and sex-related variations. Beyond different
categories of bias (recovery bias associated with the site visibility in the landscape; bias of
preservation of the burial correlated with the mode of deposition and to the body treatment;
modifications of the initial patterns by various taphonomic processes and later human inter-
ventions), these variations reflect some of the choices in terms of disposal of the dead
(Sprague, 2005) adopted by the New Caledonian past communities.
New Caledonian prehistoric funerary sites were located in various parts of the land-
scape, from the seashore to the tops of mountains and from sand dunes to karstic relief.
Bodies were placed on ledges in cliffs, in crevices and in rock-shelters. The burials consist
generally of single-interment, sometimes gathered together in burial-grounds. Multiple-
individual primary interment, in which the bodies were deposited simultaneously, have not
been identified, but true “collective” burials in which single primary interments are
emplaced successively, disturbing previously decomposed bodies (Duday et al., 1990;
Masset, 1997), may have been used particularly in the Loyalty islands. Both primary and
secondary modes of deposition are known while secondary deposits sites have never been
bioarchaeologically studied. Two kinds of body treatment have been identified: inhumation
in-ground and above-ground- and mummification, expressing a purposeful influence on
the body decomposition timing. Primary interments display two kinds of body positioning,
with a preference for flexed positions. The seated position was frequently used while the
extended position appears uncommon. In some 19th century cases, bodies appear wrapped
in or bund with vegetal material and sometimes placed in containers like canoes. The use of
body wrappers may have existed in earlier periods, however taphonomic observations (as
recommended in Duday et al., 1990 and Duday and Guillon, 2006 for example) are insuffi-
cient to archaeologically ascertain this practice and to evaluate its extension. These treat-
ments were applied to subadults of various ages at death, including very young children, as
well as to male and female adults. If all population components seem concerned by funer-
ary rituals, age and sex-dependant selections appear in some recent burials sites of the tradi-
tional Kanak cultural complex while others sites seem devoted to a group in general.
Some suggestions could be evoked in an attempt to illuminate the motivation of these
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
choices. The selection of the burial place may be motivated by practical reasons: seashore,
sand dune and rock-shelter being inappropriate for other human agencies as the develop-
ment of horticulture and sustainable habitation areas. On the other hand, rock-shelters,
ledges in the cliff may have been chosen because they constitute interesting locations for
exposure of the dead due to their visibility in the landscape. This particular choice may
express the willing to establish a continuing relationship of the living with the dead. Such a
motivation may apply for the end of the prehistoric chronology as it is ascertained by oral
information and historical reports for the period of European contact, especially in the
Loyalty Islands (Dubois, 1968). The choice of inhumation as body treatment dominates the
archaeological record. The driving intention may have been to put the physical remains of
the deceased definitively out of sight at least in some cases. However in others, the purpose
appears more practical, burying being used as a method to deliver clean bones subsequent-
ly used in other activities including preservation/curation, and even veneration, of ances-
tral relics. Such purposes are reported in 19th century accounts (Bourgarel, 1865; Leenhardt,
1930; Sarasin, 1917; Vieillard and Deplanche, 2001 [1863]) and materialized by skulls align-
ments (fig. 2), sometimes placed on shrines made of piles of stones, protected in a rock-shel-
ter or by a canoe located in sacred places (e.g. Leenhardt, 1930: pl XXI). Exposure of mum-
mies recorded in the last prehistoric period can be regarded as following the same general
trend. The mourner’s intention appears to be in both cases the creation of a relationship
between the ancestors and the living using their symbolic presence as media. Seen in a
wider context, this use of the deceased may be part of a complex socio-political system aim-
ing to construct the power and authority of the political actors as known in other forms in
other Melanesian regions (i.e. Solomon Sheppard et al. 2000; Walter and Sheppard 2000
Walter et al. 2004). The social rank of the deceased is generally assessed on the basis of the
abundance of personal ornaments, of associated graves goods, and of the size and complexi-
ty of the architectural features. These potential social status indicators appear to be of low
significance in the New Caledonian prehistoric case. The graves present similar and simple
architectural features; associated offerings or ornament are rare and limited to shell
bracelets. However, as already highlighted, age and sex-dependant selections exist in some
recent burials sites of the traditional Kanak cultural complex while others seem devoted to a
group in general. This may reflect social differentiation at least at the end of the prehistoric
chronology. The hypothesis is supported by some ethnohistorical accounts reporting that
chiefs were buried separately from the rest of the population on Maré during the 18th and
19th centuries (Dubois, 1968).
However, and beyond the fact that burials recovered by archaeologists are the physical
remains of a stage of a funeral program and associated rituals, to approach the cultural and
social meanings of funerary rituals using ethnographic analogies is an attractive but uncer-
tain exercise because different communities view their dead in different ways with a similar
archaeological result, and because of the influence of temporal factors within a given socie-
ty. For instance, a study of the funerary practices among the Tandroy of southern
Madagascar has demonstrated how dynamic funerary ritual can be over the last two hun-
dred (Parker-Pearson, 2003). And significantly in the New Caledonian case, the comparison
between archaeological and ethnohistorical data draws on a possible change in the social
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
definition of deceased over 1000 years. Some New Caledonian burial sites consist in second-
ary deposits of skulls. Ethnographers generally admit that this particular treatment was
restricted to elders, chiefs or important persons in traditional societies while reliable bioar-
chaeological data are non-existent. This particular aspect of the social position of the dead
seems to have another expression in the prehistoric Kanaks societies of the beginning of the
second millennium A.D. Specific treatment of corpses and bones were applied to adoles-
cents during this period. The complex mortuary procedure including the reopening of the
pit, the removal of a long bone and of apply the skull has concerned an adolescent at the site
of Lapita in the northwest of Grande Terre. Remains of another young people seem to have
been used in particular rituals in a site of the Thonghoin region (southwest Grande Terre)
(Galipaud, 1997).
b. Changes over time
In fact, the different archaeological examples presented in this paper show that method
of disposal of the dead has changed over time in New Caledonia. Complete descriptions of
very first settlement burials related to the Lapita period (1050–750 B.C.) have not been pub-
lished to date for the archipelago. A mortuary feature recently found at the site of Lapita,
appears to indicate a very specific tradition, associating the remains both articulated and
disarticulated of several individuals in a pit (Sand et al., 2003; Valentin et al., 2004). This
type of behaviour echoes observations made on the Lapita cemetery of Teouma in central
Vanuatu (Bedford et al., 2006; Valentin, 2006).
Significantly, rapid changes in burial practices can be identified at the end of this very
first settlement phase, when the intricately decorated dentate-stamped complex pottery
forms disappeared from the scene and family groups started settling the diverse ecological
biotopes of the archipelago. Burials tend to be mostly restricted to individual interments in
dugout pits, as exemplified from the two burials dated to the first millennium B.C. excavat-
ed at Lapita. Interestingly, seen at a regional level, these two burials display limbs positions
and resting attitudes observed in other interments regarded as immediately post-Lapita
from Fiji (Best, 1984; Pietrusewsky et al., 1997a and b; Nunn et al., 2003), and New Britain
(Specht, 1968; Green et al., 1989; Green and Anson, 2000) but not in the preceding Lapita-
age burials from Teouma site in Vanuatu (Bedford et al., 2006; Valentin, 2006). However
some earlier practices may have been retained as suggested by the presence of a complete
pot covering the head of one of the deceased at Lapita that is reminiscent of the skull
enclosed in two potteries discovered at Teouma site (Bedford et al., 2006).
Archaeological studies have shown that major changes in material culture occurred in
New Caledonia at the beginning of the first millennium A.D. (Sand, 1995a, 2001b). A dis-
tinction between the south and north of Grande Terre was in place, typified by the develop-
ment of two distinctive ceramic traditions: Plum in the south and Balabio in the north
(Sand, 1995a, 2001b). This period was also characterised by a marked decrease in exchange
between Grande Terre and the Loyalties, which like the mainland had been settled from
Lapita times (Sand, 1998), allowing for major linguistic and phenotypic diversifications to
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
take place during this intermediate millennium of the chronology. The diversity of funerary
behaviours identifiable in the first millennium A.D., exemplified by the four cases presented
in this paper, can though be simply explained by the dynamic cultural context experienced
during this period. They illustrate the diverse funerary behaviours that communities living
in various parts of the archipelago adopted to treat their dead. In Tiouandé (Northeast
Grande Terre), the current evidence suggests that in-ground interments were made at sever-
al times in rockshelters, making this treatment a funerary practice of the first millennium
A.D., at least in this region of the north of Grande Terre. Another example is the burial
ground of La Roche (Maré, Loyauté), where several skeletons were excavated, revealing
some aspects of the funerary practice of a Loyalty community at the end of the first millen-
nium A.D.. Despite the restricted number of burials, the graves’ clustering suggests group-
ing of the dead in the same area and the use of a cemetery in which people were interred
with standardised modes of grave construction and body positioning. At La Roche burial-
ground, corpses were apparently not systematically placed in a pit but directly on the coral
substratum, then buried under a small earth mound covered with a layer of gravel.
Definitive inhumation seems to have been made with codified gestures, including body
hyperflexion, that were not sex or age-at-death dependent.
In this intermediate period characterised by a diversification of cultural behaviours,
archaeological records have been able to show that, in addition to primary inhumations,
there were also human remains in secondary situations. Handled ceramics of the Plum tra-
dition (Sand, 1995a), that were used during the first millennium A.D. in the Loyalties and
the south of Grande Terre, are known to have been found in burial sites or to have con-
tained human bones (Avias, 1950; Galipaud, 1988; Sand, 1995b, 1996b; Sand and Ouetcho,
1993). This has two cultural implications. First, the handled pottery used in cooking con-
texts can also have been used in mortuary contexts. Second, disinterment and handling of
human remains were practised in the Loyalties and the south of Grande Terre during this
time. This practice may be related to ancient shared traditions that were maintained after
interaction and exchange became attenuated during this time period (Sand, 1998). It merely
emphasises the conservative nature of some funerary practices and of the bone curation,
changing over time slower than other cultural attributes.
The dynamics underway during the first millennium A.D. led at the turn of the second
millennium A.D. to the emergence of a specific “traditional Kanak cultural complex”, form-
ing the basis of the cultural behaviours observed in the late 18th century by the first
European sailors coming ashore on Grande Terre. This period is identified by a set of
changes including general intensification of horticulture, the establishment of large perma-
nent villages on Grande Terre, and the appearance of distinctive new items of material cul-
ture such as Nera and Oundjo pottery styles in the south and north of Grande Terre respec-
tively, “hache ostensoir” (ceremonial axes) and new forms of Conus and Trochus shell arm-
bands. During this last millennium before European contact, burial practices appear very
diverse, encompassing mummification of bodies, display in rock-shelters and inhumation in
pits, sometimes with reopening of the grave to remove some bones. These archaeologically-
identified corpse treatments are also documented by traditional as well as ethnographic
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
information. For example, the case of exhumation discovered at Lapita has parallels with
ethnohistorical records that described the use of a multistage funerary protocol in 19th centu-
ry Kanak society (e.g. Lambert, 1901; Leenhardt, 1930, 1947; Godin, 2000). The first stage of
the ceremony described in early European accounts (Glaumont, 1888; Lambert, 1901;
Vieillard and Deplanche, 2001 [1863]) was illustrated by Verguet (1847: fig. 30) after a visit
in the Pouébo-Balade region in the northeast of Grande Terre. To highlight the diversity of
practices and the need for more archaeological work on this topic, it is worth noting that the
practice of using ceramic pots as containers for human bones, recognized for the first mil-
lennium A.D. but not yet recorded for the traditional Kanak period, is known through eth-
nohistorical records from the north of Grande Terre for the 19th century. Mary Wallis who
was in the Pouébo-Balade region in September 1852, describes a ritual associating human
remains and cooking vessels (Routledge, 1994: 136).
These different data on the treatment of the dead in prehistoric New Caledonia may be
summarized by highlighting that a social and cultural dynamic, combined with the progres-
sive settlement of diverse ecological and geographical landscapes, has, over the long term,
allowed, in this southern Melanesian archipelago, to develop multiple funerary traditions.
Innovations over time are evident, and regional influences might also have been at play in
some instances. Although difficult to show though archaeological data, the progressive
diversification of burial practices may have been influenced by evolution of the beliefs and
cultural ideas about the status of the deceased.
We thank the Loyalty islands Province, the Northern Province, and the Southern
Province of New Caledonia, and Kanaks customary leaders and landowners who permitted
the researches presented here. We also thank the staff of the New Caledonia Museum and
above all Jacques Bolé and André Ouetcho, technicians in the Département Archéologie,
with whom we have undertaken much of the work. Jean-Christophe Galipaud graciously
provided us with a copy of Colin Smart’s field notes. Thanks are also due to Ian Lilley who
edited most of the English version of the paper.
Journal of Austronesian Studies 2(1) June 2008
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Frédérique Valentin Christophe Sand
Lapita Kanak
Foué (Koné) Lapita
2000 Kanak
Prehistoric Burials from New Caledonia (Southern Melanesia): A Review
... Archaeologies of mortuary ritual in Oceania provide important insights into crosscultural interactions, social organization, and associated spiritual practices of small island societies as they changed through time (Garanger 1972;Leach and Davidson 2008:133-254;Sand et al. 2020;Valentin and Sand 2008;Valentin et al. 2011). This article presents new insights into mortuary practices gleaned from burials from the Tanna, Futuna, and Aniwa islands in southern Vanuatu. ...
... It appears to have been used in New Caledonia and other islands of southern Vanuatu during the same time period. Primary and secondary burials with no associated ornaments were only partially excavated at Tiouandé (New Caledonia), Hnenigec (Loyalty Island), Île des Pins (Lagarde and Ouetcho 2015;Valentin and Sand 2008) and Raowalai on Erromango (Valentin et al. 2011). ...
... Spriggs and Roe (1989) recorded 17 burial rockshelters and cave complexes containing a combined total of at least 79 individuals on Erromango. In this exposed environment most of the human skeletal remains are generally separated and commingled and no mortuary pattern can be recognized due to the influence of various taphonomic processes and human impacts (Shutler and Shutler 1966;Shutler et al. 2002;Valentin and Sand 2008). Ornaments are generally absent either because they were not used or have decayed or been removed. ...
... Utilizing these methodology, several recent studies published their findings on the funerary contexts of the Upper Palaeolithic (Henry-Gambier, 2008;Sparacello et al., 2018), Mesolithic or Epipaleolithic (Jackes et al., 2014;Nilsson Stutz, 2003a, 2003b, Nilsson Stutz et al., 2008Nilsson Stutz and Larsson, 2016;Richter et al., 2010;Roksandic, 2006), and Neolithic (Sparacello et al., 2019;Torv, 2015), as well as other prehistoric (Le Mort, 1994;Valentin et al., 2010;Valentin and Sand, 2008;Willis and Tayles, 2009) and historical periods (Baitzel, 2019;Giangreco et al., 2006;Peressinotto et al., 2001). Furthermore, the use of these methods has also been considered in the field of forensic anthropology (Duday and Guillon, 2006;Roksandic, 2002). ...
... Consequently, the site has a continuous sequence from earlier Lapita layers through to immediately Post-Lapita. An un-calibrated radiocarbon date on the burial (Beta-125136: 2710 AE 80 BP) appeared to be consistent with dates from the earlier deposits, but could not be reliably calibrated, or interpreted, at the time (Valentin and Sand, 2008:4). ...
Full-text available
Archaeologists have long debated the origins and mode of dispersal of the immediate predecessors of all Polynesians and many populations in Island Melanesia. Such debates are inextricably linked to a chronological framework provided, in part, by radiocarbon dates. Human remains have the greatest potential for providing answers to many questions pertinent to these debates. Unfortunately, bone is one of the most complicated materials to date reliably because of bone degradation, sample pre-treatment and diet. This is of particular concern in the Pacific where humidity contributes to the rapid decay of bone protein, and a combination of marine, reef, C 4 , C 3 and freshwater foods complicate the interpretation of 14 C determinations. Independent advances in bone pre-treatment, isotope multivariate modelling and radiocarbon calibration techniques provide us, for the first time, with the tools to obtain reliable calibrated ages for Pacific burials. Here we present research that combines these techniques, enabling us to re-evaluate the age of burials from key archaeological sites in the Pacific.
... This paper belongs to a relatively recent genre of regional, archipelago-based, surveys of prehistoric and early European contact period mortuary practices in the western Pacific (i.e. Fitzpatrick and Nelson (2007) for Palau in Micronesia and Valentin and Sand (2008) for New Caledonia). Syntheses such as these have only really become possible during the last decade. ...
Full-text available
New discoveries and previously-unpublished data on burials from south, central, and north Vanuatu are reviewed in this paper, offering a synthesis of mortuary practices over three millennia, from Lapita to the early European contact period. Relying on five attributes describing the practices and behaviours (body and bone treatment, position and orientation of the body, ornaments and associated artefacts, and use of single or multiple burial), the analysis emphasizes two major episodes of structural changes in the overall funerary system following initial settlement of Vanuatu. The first occurred towards the end of the Lapita period and the second is indicated by the distinctiveness of the second millennium aD burials. A possible interpretation of these changes, following the lines of Thomas's 'genealogical ap-proach' (2001) is proposed.
Full-text available
Excavation of the 3,000-year-old Lapita cemetery of Teouma (Efate, Central Vanuatu) has allowed the first detailed investigation of mortuary practices of these initial colonizers of the Vanuatu archipelago. Focusing on one component of funerary practice: the adult corpse and bone treatment of 25 mortuary contexts recovered at the site during excavations in 2004 and 2005, the present study reveals that beyond a complex procedure common for all the deceased, there is marked diversity of funerary behavior. Utilizing current knowledge and practice regarding the method of field anthropology or archaeothanatology, including the chronology of joint disarticulation sequences, we were able to establish the following practices: treatment of corpses by inhumation in a container—pit or wrappers—not immediately filled with sediment, followed by exhumation of the skull and other bones of the upper part of the skeleton, and secondary deposition of bones, including the cranium. The identified variations reflect particular attitudes toward human remains which might be connected to the social position of the deceased and/or individual choice.
Archaeologists have long debated the origins and mode of dispersal of the immediate predecessors of all Polynesians and many populations in Island Melanesia. Such debates are inextricably linked to a chronological framework provided, in part, by radiocarbon dates. Human remains have the greatest potential for providing answers to many questions pertinent to these debates. Unfortunately, bone is one of the most complicated materials to date reliably because of bone degradation, sample pre-treatment and diet. This is of particular concern in the Pacific where humidity contributes to the rapid decay of bone protein, and a combination of marine, reef, C4, C3 and freshwater foods complicate the interpretation of 14C determinations. Independent advances in bone pre-treatment, isotope multivariate modelling and radiocarbon calibration techniques provide us, for the first time, with the tools to obtain reliable calibrated ages for Pacific burials. Here we present research that combines these techniques, enabling us to re-evaluate the age of burials from key archaeological sites in the Pacific.
Archaeologists have long debated the origins and mode of dispersal of the immediate predecessors of all Polynesians and many populations in Island Melanesia. Such debates are inextricably linked to a chronological framework provided, in part, by radiocarbon dates. Human remains have the greatest potential for providing answers to many questions pertinent to these debates. Unfortunately, bone is one of the most complicated materials to date reliably because of bone degradation, sample pre-treatment and diet. This is of particular concern in the Pacific where humidity contributes to the rapid decay of bone protein, and a combination of marine, reef, C4, C3 and freshwater foods complicate the interpretation of 14C determinations. Independent advances in bone pre-treatment, isotope multivariate modelling and radiocarbon calibration techniques provide us, for the first time, with the tools to obtain reliable calibrated ages for Pacific burials. Here we present research that combines these techniques, enabling us to re-evaluate the age of burials from key archaeological sites in the Pacific.
Full-text available
Since the 1960's and 1970's, a number of archaeological overviews associating chronological evolution and cultural transformation in Oceanian archipelagos have been published (Yen and Gordon 1973; Kirch and Yen 1982; Best 1984; Davidson 1984; Kirch 1985, 1988b). These works are often based on determinist and evolutionist concepts (Kirch 1984) which, over and above typological elements such as the evolution of pottery and hook forms, take into consideration other factors such as the slow human colonisation of islands, population growth, human influence on the environment, occupation of the land and division into different social and political areas, and the intensification of horticultural crops.
Bones of recent mammals in the Amboseli Basin, southern Kenya, exhibit distinctive weathering characteristics that can be related to the time since death and to the local conditions of temperature, humidity and soil chemistry. A categorization of weathering characteristics into six stages, recognizable on descriptive criteria, provides a basis for investigation of weathering rates and processes. The time necessary to achieve each successive weathering stage has been calibrated using known-age carcasses. Most bones decompose beyond recognition in 10 to 15 yr. Bones of animals under 100 kg and juveniles appear to weather more rapidly than bones of large animals or adults. Small-scale rather than widespread environmental factors seem to have greatest influence on weathering characteristics and rates. Bone weathering is potentially valuable as evidence for the period of time represented in recent or fossil bone assemblages, including those on archeological sites, and may also be an important tool in censusing populations of animals in modern ecosystems.