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"Mana"- the true face of Lapita unveiled

"Mana"- the true face of Lapita unveiled

The University of the South Pacific today revealed the face of one of the very first people to have lived in the Fiji Islands. The face of Mana - the 3000 year old woman from Fiji, was unveiled by USP Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Tarr during a special ceremony organised to mark this historical event.

While something like this is becoming common internationally, this is the first time a face from the Lapita era in the Pacific, has been revealed. The face of Mana was reconstructed using a model of her skull which was discovered by a member of a research team from USP and the Fiji Museum which excavated an early human settlement at Naitabale in the south of Moturiki Island, central Fiji (Map 1) in June-July 2002. The team was led by Patrick Nunn, Professor of Geography at USP, aided by Mr Sepeti Matararaba of the Fiji Museum and Ms Roselyn Kumar (USP's Institute of Applied Science).

The Naitabale settlement was probably established about 1000 BC by a group of Lapita people whose ancestors had come from the Solomon Islands. The distinctive Lapita pottery that identifies the culture of these early settlers was found in abundance at the Naitabale settlement.

In the course of excavations at Naitabale in 2002, a complete human skeleton was discovered in beach sand more than 1.5 metres below the ground surface. The skeleton was covered by undisturbed layers of sediment (sand and silt) in which Lapita pottery was found. The discovery of the skeleton was exciting because it appeared certain to be of Lapita age.

Lapita-age skeletons are few. Some have been found in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, but this skeleton was perhaps only the 16th found. What was also remarkable about this skeleton was the excellent state of preservation of the skull.

The discoverer of the skeleton at Naitabale, a Solomon Island student from USP named Chris Suri, named it "Mana" which means "truth" in the Lau dialect of Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands. The bones of Mana were removed from Naitabale with the permission and cooperation of the landowners. Initial analysis was undertaken at USP, and thence at the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University in Japan.

In December 2003, the bones of Mana were returned to Fiji from Japan, placed in a coffin and re-buried at Naitabale.

While the skeleton of Mana was in Japan, a model was made of her head. This is the first time that the skull of a Lapita-era skeleton had been so well preserved that it was possible to faithfully reconstruct the head. This therefore represents the first time that the face of a person from the Lapita era (1350 BC to 650 BC) has ever been seen. It is the face of one of the very first people to have lived in the Fiji Islands.

During detailed analysis at Kyoto University, the skeleton was determined to be that of a female who had died between the ages of 40 and 60 years. She appeared to have been 161-164 cm tall and to have given birth to at least one child. She was probably right-handed.

Mana's body would have been tall, muscular and tough. Like other Lapita-age skeletons, Mana's body was adapted to heavy mastication, and strenuous physical activity involving the neck, arms and feet. The roots of Mana's teeth were stained brown, perhaps from chewing roots of kava (Piper Methysticum).

To determine the age of Mana, shells associated with the skeleton were subjected to radiocarbon dating. These include a big shell (Trochus Niloticus) placed beneath the neck, and another between the knees. The bones of Mana were also dated directly. Dating was overseen by Professor Nunn, and undertaken at Nagoya University in Japan and the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

The results suggested that Mana lived in the year 800 BC, perhaps earlier.

The face of Lapita

Using computer modelling, it was possible to re-create the head of Mana from the well-preserved remains of her cranium. The results represented the first time it was possible to see what one of the earliest occupants of the Fiji Islands looked like.

It is clear that certain aspects of the face of Mana resemble what are commonly regarded as ancestral Polynesian, Fijian, and Asian people, but that her features do not allow her to be readily classified into any such category.

No DNA was recovered from the skeleton of Mana.

Lapita People

The Lapita people were the first humans to colonise the western tropical Pacific Islands. They remain visible as a distinctive cultural group for only a few hundred years, starting about 1350 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea and ending about 650 BC in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Around the beginning of this period, from bases in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, they set out eastwards on intentional voyages of colonisation. They encountered groups of islands (New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) that were not occupied by humans. The first place they landed in Fiji is believed to have been at Bourewa, near Natadola in southwest Viti Levu Island. The Naitabale settlement was probably established a few generations later (Map 2).

Research Results

Today the remains of the Lapita-age settlement at Naitabale are about 300 metres inland from the coast. But at the time the settlement existed, it was much closer to the shore, occupying the back of a beach ridge and part of the estuary at the mouth of the Mataloaloa Stream (see Map 3).

When the Lapita people were living at Naitabale, the sea level was about 1.5 metres higher than it is today. This is why the shoreline was farther inland. Since that time (until quite recently), the sea level has been falling causing the shoreline to extend seawards at this location.

The first indication that a Lapita settlement existed at Naitabale was when the research team was walking along the sides of the Mataloaloa River, and Mr Matararaba discovered one of the most elaborate pieces of Lapita pottery ever found in Fiji. After the settlement was excavated, Professor Nunn mapped the geology and was able to reconstruct its geography about 1000 BC (more than 3000 years ago) (see Map 3B).

During the excavation process at Naitabale, more than 17,000 pieces of pottery were collected from the Lapita-age settlement there and analysed at USP. Of these, only 92 pieces displayed decoration characteristic of the Lapita culture. Pottery analysis was carried out by Roselyn Kumar (USP), William Dickinson (University of Arizona, USA), and Tomo Ishimura (Kyoto University).

Analysis of the decorative style of the 92 Lapita potsherds showed that they had more affinities with Lapita pottery made in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands rather than that made at other sites in Fiji. This surprising result implied that Naitabale was one of the very first places to be settled by the Lapita colonisers of Fiji. Analysis of the sand tempers of selected potsherds showed that only around 70 per cent were made at Naitabale from locally-available materials. Around 30 per cent were imported from elsewhere in Fiji (perhaps beyond Fiji), including about 10 per cent from the Rewa Delta (Viti Levu Island), 10 per cent from Kadavu Island in southern Fiji, and 10 percent from the Lau Group of eastern Fiji. This result demonstrated that the Lapita people who occupied Naitabale from about 1000 BC to about 650 BC had links with people living at the same time in these other places.

On evidence of life at the time, much of the material that the research team excavated from Naitabale was the remains of food that the Lapita-age people living them had consumed. This material included animal bones and shellfish. These materials were analysed by Tomo Ishimura (Kyoto University, Japan), Frank Thomas (formerly USP), and Janet Davidson (New Zealand).

What was clear was that marine foods dominated the diet of the Lapita people who occupied Naitabale. Most of the fish bones are from species that live within the reef and can be caught from the shore (such as Scaridae and Serranidae) rather than from boats at sea. Large numbers of turtle bones were found.

Other animal bones found at Naitabale included pigs, dogs, chickens, rats and fruit bats. It is unclear which of these were eaten and which were not.

Most shellfish remains found at Naitabale are from the inner reef zone. They include large specimens of Trochus Niloticus and huge numbers of the tiny surf clam Atactodea striata.

The field research was funded by USP.


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