Archive for the ‘Ancient Pacific’ Category

The Maori Hei-tiki (ca.800-1300 AD)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

TikimanAround 750 AD, a tribe of people from the Polynesian islands arrived in New Zealand. These Maori people remain in New Zealand today, and the descendants of the original settlers continue to maintain a sense of connection with their ancient ancestry.

Some of the most well-recognized elements of ancient Maori culture are small, carved figures, called Hei-tiki. These were most commonly carved from pounamu (greenstone), or nephrite, a stone similar in quality and appearance to jade. Nephrite is an extremely hard stone, and would have been immensely difficult for the Neolithic Maori to work.

Hei-tiki were likely worn around the neck, and it has been suggested that the figures were fertility charms worn only by women, intended to represent human embryo. This is highly speculative, for there is almost no contextual evidence from the archaeological record through which their purpose might be surmised. Indeed, it was probably Europeans settlers who first proposed the fertility theory after seeing an unfamiliar symbol used by aboriginals with whom they were unable to communicate. A second theory suggests that they were used as memorials to ancestors.

tikisThe forms of hei-tiki can vary: the head may be tilted right or left, or even placed upright. This may be representative of changes in the tools being used to carve the figures, since different blade styles would allow different kinds of cuts.

One theory of the hei-tiki’s origin suggests a connection with Tiki, the first man created by Tane in Maori mythology. Today, replica hei-tiki are sold in New Zealand tourist shops, while modern-day Maori may pass on their family’s hei-tiki as heirlooms or wear them as prestige items.

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Tomorrow: India’s vanishing city

Headless Bodies and Migrating Peoples (ca. 800 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

headless migratorsIn 2003, archaeologists working in the Pacific islands of Vanuatu located the region’s oldest cemetery, which contained a rather surprising sight: although the bodies had been carefully placed in their graves 3,000 years ago… the skulls of 70 people were missing!

The earliest known inhabitants of the Pacific islands were the Lapita people, and though the burials in this cemetery date to their occupation of the islands, many of the bodies and heads found here belonged to individuals from completely different corners of the Pacific. Although the Lapita people settled on Vanuatu and in Polynesia, the various groups of Lapita differed genetically. The reasons for this have yet to be explained by archaeologists, and it is hoped that the cemetery on Vanuatu may provide valuable genetic evidence for the settlement patterns of people in the ancient Pacific.

As for the missing skulls, it is thought that the bodies were originally buried with their skulls attached, but were retrieved after the flesh had decayed. Many ancient cultures are known to have kept ancestral skulls in shrines or high-traffic areas of the home, in order to pay honor to the dead.

Oddly enough, one burial of an elderly man had three skulls placed on his chest – it is possible that they were his descendants, though perhaps not surprisingly, the man himself was headless.

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Tomorrow: Early Werewolf mythology

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