Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Burial Site Reveals Pre-history

By Stephen Luntz

A burial site in Vietnam provides insights into a hunter-gather population that inhabited South-East Asia more than 4500 years ago and is closely related to indigenous Australians and Melanesians.

More than 140 bodies are buried at Con Co Ngua in squatting positions with their hands clasped in their laps and their chins resting on their knees. Dr Marc Oxenham of the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology says the numbers indicate a substantial population for the area.

“Received wisdom would suggest these were not hunter-gatherers, but while large cemeteries are not common in Australia pre-European settlement, they do exist. There are very rich biomes near large estuaries, and we are beginning to think these types of locations would have been more than sufficient for large communities before they were swamped by agriculture,” Oxenham says.

Modern humans arrived in South-East Asia around 70,000 years ago, and the skeletons remained similar until roughly 4500 years ago when agriculture arrived. “We will be sampling DNA from Con Co Ngua, but we can see that if you put flesh on the skeletons they would look like modern Melanesians,” Oxenham says.

A nearby site approximately 1000 years later shows an interesting mix of peoples who look like the Con Co Ngua population and those that look like the modern inhabitants of the area.

“There are two models that explain the replacements of the South-East Asian population,” says Oxenham. “One has quick evolutionary change, while the other suggests there was large-scale migration of agricultural communities from what is now southern China. The evidence from this excavation supports the latter model.”

The nearby site, however, provides no evidence for violence as the populations changed. “There seems to be some adoption of agriculture by the indigenous communities, and some taking on of local knowledge by the new arrivals,” says Oxenham.

“Archaeological cemeteries and living sites of such antiquity are all but unknown in the region, with only a handful of burials from a number of cave sites previously known,” Oxenham says. The site has been preserved by a layer of what appears to be marine clay, which Oxenham attributes to a temporary rise in sea levels around 5000 years ago.