When a team of archaeologists began excavating an old coral reef in Vanuatu in 2008 and 2009, they soon discovered it had served as a cemetery in ancient times. So far, 71 buried individuals have been recorded, giving new information on the islands’ inhabitants and their funeral rites.
“This is a groundbreaking discovery, as it is the oldest and biggest skeleton find ever in the Pacific Ocean; bigger cemeteries found further east are much younger,” says Mads Ravn, head of research at the University of Stavanger’s Museum of Archaeology in Norway.
Relatives did not treat their dead gently. Besides being headless, some of them had had their arms and legs broken, in order to fit into the coral reef cavities. Ravn suggests they may have been left to rot first, and buried later as skeletons.