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Microfossil and Fourier Transform InfraRed analyses of Lapita and post-Lapita human dental calculus from Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific

by Mark Horrocks last modified 2015-02-14 02:17 PM

Horrocks M, Nieuwoudt MK, Kinaston R, Buckley H, Bedford S. 2014. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 44, 17-33.


Here we report on microfossil analysis of human dental calculus from Lapita (3000-2600 B.P.) and post-Lapita (2300-2000 B.P.) burials from Vao and Uripiv, Vanuatu. Phytoliths of introduced Musa and indigenous Heliconia in the calculus suggest the use of these taxa as food wrappings. Phytoliths and most other material in the calculus, namely sponge spicules, calcium oxalate crystals, xylem and charcoal, are unequivocal identifications. Another type of material, comprising degraded objects with a general morphology suggesting starch grains, is uncertain however, in that the unequivocal starch indicator, the Maltese cross, was not observed. We used a new method for calculus, Fourier Transform InfraRed spectroscopy (FTIR), comparing the suspected starch with modern reference starch of prehistoric Pacific crops. Although the ancient FTIR analysis was limited to a small number of suspected starch grains, the results provide another line of evidence for starch.

The calculus data are consistent with previous microfossil studies of Lapita layers at the sites, and demonstrate the efficacy of this technique in contributing to the definition of the history of plant use and diet of Pacific Island populations.

Key words

Starch, phytoliths, Fourier Transform InfraRed spectroscopy, dental calculus, diet, horticulture, Lapita, Vanuatu.

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