via Cosmos, 15 September 2023: Indigenous archaeologists and international researchers unearth Lapita pottery shards at Pang Pang, Vanuatu, shedding light on one of the Pacific’s earliest human settlements and furthering our understanding of ancient Pacific migrations.
Sarvanu and Willie are part of a new generation of Pacific islander graduate archaeologists specialising in Lapita. In Vanuatu, as in many Pacific islands, the majority of recorded archaeological science has been done by foreigners.
This was particularly true before the country’s independence in 1980, when foreign scientists working under colonial governments were able to freely enter villages, at times despite protests from locals.
“Before 1980, people here didn’t have power, so foreigners could come inside any community,” Willie says.
This history is not lost on a new generation of Western archaeologists. Over lunch at Pang Pang village, the young ANU students discuss the case of Roi Mata, a Vanuatu chief whose grave was uncovered by French archaeologist Jose Garanger almost six decades ago. According to surveys conducted when the site was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was “widespread dissatisfaction” from local villagers about the excavations, which were thought to offend the ancient chief’s spirit and led to the regrowth of vegetation around the site (the villagers believe the grave was once so sacred plants were unable to grow there).
They see the tale as a warning, and pledge to always collaborate with local communities, as they are doing in Pang Pang. Such an approach is now mandated in Vanuatu, with all researchers obligated by law to work with the VKS to undertake any studies in the country.