Exploitation and utilization of tropical rainforests indicated in dental calculus of ancient Oceanic Lapita culture colonists


Remote Oceania, which largely consists of islands covered in tropical forests, was the last region on earth to be successfully colonized by humans, beginning 3,000 years ago. We examined human dental calculus from burials in an ancient Lapita culture cemetery to gain insight into the early settlement of this previously untouched tropical environment, specifically on the island of Efate in Vanuatu. Dental calculus is an ideal material to analyse questions of human and plant interactions due to the ingestion of plant-derived microparticles that become incorporated into the calculus as it forms throughout a person’s life. Most of the microparticles identified here are from tree and shrub resources, including a ~2,900 calibrated (cal) bp example of banana in Remote Oceania, providing direct evidence for the importance of forests and arboriculture during the settlement of Remote Oceania.

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Fig. 1: Map of the region of Lapita expansion showing archaeological sites mentioned in the text.
Fig. 2: Examples of archaeological tree or shrub phytoliths from several Teouma burials.
Fig. 3: Archaeological banana phytoliths.

Data availability

Images of photographed microparticles are available from the corresponding author on request.


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The research presented here was funded by a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship, a Royal Society of New Zealand Skinner Fund grant and an Otago Centre for Electron Microscopy Student Research Award awarded to M.T. We thank J. Dudgeon for giving M.T. access to the scanning electron microscope at Idaho State University and the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Otago for providing access to their light microscopes. Further work on the manuscript was supported by the Max Planck Society. We thank P. Roberts and N. Boivin for their comments on a previous manuscript. We thank J. Maxwell for creating the map and J. Hurford for help creating all other figures. We thank C. Sam and F. Alo from the Department of Forestry in Port Vila, K. Allen and S. Alben and numerous chiefs and villagers from Efate Island and northeast Malakula who helped to collect the reference material, as well as C. Stantis who collected additional material from Atiu, Cook Islands. We also thank R. Shing and M. Abong of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC) for their assistance during calculus sampling. Sampling was done through a research agreement with the Vanuatu National Cultural Council. The Teouma Archaeological Project is a joint initiative of the Vanuatu National Museum and the Australian National University (ANU), directed by M.S. and S.B. and at different times R. Regenvanu and M. Abong, both former Directors of the VCC. Funding of the project was provided by the Australian Research Council (grant no. DP 0556874), the National Geographic Society (grant no. SRC 8038–06), the Pacific Biological Foundation, the Department of Archaeology and Natural History and School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the ANU, the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation Foundation and B. Powell. The laboratory research and travel for excavation of the skeletal remains were funded by The Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund (grant nos. UOO0407 and 09-UOO-106) and a University of Otago Research Grant awarded to H.B. The support of the leaseholder M. R. Monvoisin and family is acknowledged, as is the support and assistance of the traditional landowners and population of Eratap Village. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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M.T. wrote the paper, designed the study, performed the analyses and analysed the results. L.M.-S. edited the paper and was involved in project planning. R.K. conducted the field work, wrote the paper and provided reference material. S.B. and M.S. conducted the field work, provided the samples and edited the paper. H.B. conducted the field work, wrote the paper, designed the study and was involved in project planning.

Correspondence to Monica Tromp.

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Tromp, M., Matisoo-Smith, E., Kinaston, R. et al. Exploitation and utilization of tropical rainforests indicated in dental calculus of ancient Oceanic Lapita culture colonists. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0808-y

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