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By Denis Bedoya, Infosurhoy
Evidence of banana seeds, leaves and stems in the tartar build up on the teeth of the initial colonists of remote Oceania, suggests they were both plant cultivators and foragers, according to a new study.
The islands of Remote Oceania were some of the last places on Earth to be colonised when the Lapita people reached the distant archipelago of Vanuatu 3,300 years ago.
Their mission to live on the unexplored corner of the world was made possible by eating local palm trees and cultivating bananas brought with them.
This combination allowed the colonials to adapt to and modify their environment, despite fighting a battle against vitamin deficiencies and scurvy.
Tartar on the teeth of the people buried at the archaeological cemetery site of Teouma on Efate Island revealed phytoliths — tiny minerals from inside a plant — from the ancient native palm-type plants and imported bananas.
Evidence of banana seeds had not previously been found in Remote Oceania and researchers believe this is proof of human transportation of the ‘cultiwild’ varieties.
Cultiwild is a term for a wild species of plant which has not yet been fully domesticated for agriculture, but is being transported by humans as a food supply.
‘As well as being a major staple food crop in most tropical environments today, bananas have a myriad of uses besides human consumption,’ the authors write.
It is thought the people brought bananas with them to the islands of Vanuatu and managed to cultivate them on the archipelago.
‘Therefore, finding both seed and leaf at Teouma is just as likely to be evidence of banana being used for other purposes, such as building material, jewellery, textiles, food wrappings and plates, cordage, ceremonial use or medicine.’
Teouma is the earliest and largest Lapita cemetery site in the Pacific islands and was first discovered in 2006, with more than 70 burials.
But deciphering much information from the site has been a challenge due to the bizarre nature in which the bodies were buried.
Most of the remains had the skull removed after initial burial, and only one skeleton had its own jaw in the grave.
In total, out of an estimated 100 total skeletons, only seven skulls were found in the graves.
And instead of being atop the shoulders, as would be expected, the skulls had been deliberately placed in obscure locations.
Three of the skulls were found on the chest of a headless adult male, one skull was enclosed within two pots and three were placed within the lower limbs of another, headless, old male.
‘All of the burials appear to have been complete at the time of initial interment, as evidenced by the remaining few loose teeth being found where the skull should have been or in the thoracic region,’ the researchers write in the study.
Researchers from the University of Otago and Australia National University say this proves how important forests were to the settlers of Remote Oceania.
The Lapita people ventured westwards what is known as ‘Near Oceania’ and experts have called this ‘one of the most challenging migration events in human history’.
The people suffered with vitamin deficiencies, with previous studies is finding the people were blighted by scurvy during the initial part of their colonisation.
Researchers write in the study: ‘The Lapita peoples were both horticulturalists and foragers who adapted to and modified their environments depending on the local ecology and their subsistence needs.
‘This strategy enabled the successful settlement of most of the varied island environments from the Bismarck Archipelago to Western Polynesia within a few hundred years.’
A recent study found ancient humans evolved teeth strong enough to eat even the toughest plant material.
Scientists in the U.S discovered even the hardest plant tissues scarcely wear down primate teeth.
‘We found that hard plant tissues such as the shells of nuts and seeds barely influence microwear textures on teeth,’ said Adam van Casteren, lecturer in biological anthropology at Washington University in St Louis.
Scientists studied Bornean orangutan molars to see how hard plants affected enamel.
They found that microscopic pits were not created by hard plant tissue, such as nuts and seeds as was expected.
The hardiness of the teeth likely played a crucial role in allowing people to colonise the island.
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