Vietnam to Vanuatu: Dental Calculus and the Austronesian Expansion

How did cultural and economic interactions between Mainland Southeast Asia and Island Southeast Asia shape these regions prior to and after the Austronesian expansion into the Pacific? This project aims to shed light on aspects of these interactions using microparticle, proteomic and genetic analyses of human dental calculus.

Excavation at the archaeological cemetery of Teouma on Efate Island, Vanuatu

The prevailing model for Austronesian expansion is the “Out of Taiwan” model that suggests an agricultural and ceramic maritime culture originating in Taiwan approximately 4,000 BP travelled through Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) and Melanesia before expanding into the wider Pacific 3,000 BP. However, conflicting linguistic and genetic data suggest this model is too simplistic, not taking into account the influence of pre-Neolithic interactions between Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA) and ISEA prior to and after the Austronesian expansion.

Map showing project related archaeological sites. Click to enlarge.

The Austronesian expansion is primarily linked with the spread of Austronesian languages from Taiwan but also with a MSEA and/or ISEA Neolithic cultural “package” that included commensal plants and animals. Genetic and cytological data show pre-Austronesian influences to the “package” from New Guinea (e.g. sugar cane and banana) in the east and Vietnam (e.g. pigs) in the west that eventually spread into Oceania. In contrast, the Neolithic Taiwanese parts of the “package” such as agricultural rice production appear to have been lost by the time the expansion reached SW Oceania. In ISEA the picture is murkier and it is unknown how much of an influence New Guinean (Oceanic) plants and animals may have had prior to and during the expansion compared to those derived from MSEA.

Plant microfossils extracted from Pacific dental calculus

This project will use microfossil, proteomic and genetic techniques on human dental calculus spanning at least 3,000 years and twice as many kilometres to refine our understanding of the Austronesian expansion including not only the dispersal patterns of people, but also their domesticates, health and diseases from MSEA, ISEA and into Vanuatu. Dental calculus collected from individuals excavated from key sites in the SEA and Pacific regions will be examined. These include Con Co Ngua cemetery (7,000 – 6,000 BP) in northern Vietnam (MSEA), Pain Haka cemetery (3,000 – 2,100 BP) in East Flores, Indonesia (ISEA), the SAC site (2,700-2,500 BP) on Watom Island, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Teouma cemetery (3,000 BP) and sites on Uripiv (2,700-2,100 BP) and Vao (2,700 – 2,500 BP) Islands in Vanuatu. The Con Co Ngua site in northern Vietnam represents a pre-Austronesian-expansion, pre-Neolithic population, which will act as a baseline for potential MSEA influences on later, broadly contemporaneous sites in ISEA (Pain Haka) and Oceania (Watom, Teouma, Uripiv and Vao).

Related Publications

Bedford, S., Buckley, H.R., Valentin, F., Tayles, N. & Longga, N.F. 2011. Lapita Burials, a New Lapita Cemetery and Post-Lapita Burials from Malakula, Northern Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 2(2): 26-48.

Bedford, S., Spriggs, M. & Regenvanu, R. 2006. The Teouma Lapita Site and the early human settlement on the Pacific Islands.  Antiquity 80(310): 812-828.

Galipaud, J.-C., Kinaston, R., Halcrow, S., Foster, A., Harris, N., Simanjuntak, T., Javelle, J. & Buckley, H. 2016. The Pain Haka burial ground on Flores: Indonesian evidence for a shared Neolithic belief system in Southeast Asia.  Antiquity 90(354): 1505-1521.

Petchey, P., Buckley, H., Walter, R., Anson, D. & Kinaston, R. 2016. The 2008-2009 Excavations at the SAC Locality, Reber-Rakival Lapita Site, Watom Island, Papua New Guinea.  Journal of Indo-Pacific Archaeology 40: 12-31.

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