Mass grave discovered in Fiji raises mystery: Cannibalism or infectious disease?


The coral-lined shores of Vitu Levu, Fiji’s largest island, attract tourists looking to enjoy snorkeling in the tropical waters. But just a few miles inland, local villagers recently discovered an unusual mass grave that may shed light on a tumultuous and gruesome period in this South Pacific island’s history.

The human remains were discovered on February 29 atop a huge hill fort overlooking the murky Sigatoka River, which meanders from the rugged highlands of Viturevu Island. Although they have not yet been analyzed, local residents speculate that they may have been victims of ritual cannibalism that had been practiced for years during tribal wars. However, archaeologists believe the deceased were more likely to have died during a measles outbreak. This devastating epidemic was tragically transmitted by the King of Fiji after his visit to Australia in 1875, killing one in three of his subjects.

Fiji is made up of more than 300 volcanic islands and is located 1,000 miles north of New Zealand. People known as the Lapita people, the ancestors of today’s Polynesian maritime people, settled here about 3,000 years ago. Settlers then arrived from the Melanesian islands in the west and outposts in Polynesia to the east, such as Samoa and Tonga. By 1000 years ago, Fiji had emerged as an important trade crossroads in the South Pacific.

Merchant war and plague

In 1789, Colonel William Blighbounty He is credited with being the first European to map the Fiji coast, followed by American and European merchants and missionaries in the early to mid-19th century. They called the region the “Cannibal Islands” and sought to eradicate ritual cannibalism, in which the victors ate the losers of war in order to gain power from their victims. Western Christians also exploited the area’s sea cucumbers for export to China, and soon British and American planters arrived seeking land for cotton production. Religious and economic turmoil intensified conflict between Fiji’s disparate clans and tribes as Britain and the United States sought to annex the fertile archipelago.

The crisis came to a head in 1867, when British missionary Thomas Baker attempted to convert members of the upland tribes along the Sigatoka River to Christianity. He is said to have infuriated local residents by touching the chief’s head, a significant cultural taboo. Baker and seven of his Fijian converts were mutilated, burned, and eaten by the villagers of Vitureb. The missionary’s leather sandals are on display at the Fiji Museum in the capital, Suva. In the wake of Baker’s death, the attacks on Native Americans, and the subsequent killings of two white settlers, white vigilante groups (including a group calling itself the Ku Klux Klan, after the American white supremacist organization) began wandering the islands in search of revenge.

This turmoil eventually led to war between the traditional Fijians of the highlands and the British, Fiji’s white Christian allies on the coast. The traditionalist sect was based at Tavni, strategically located above a bend in the Sigatoka River, 60 miles inland from the island of Viturevu. Excavations and oral histories indicate that Tongan immigrants settled in Tavuni around the year 1800, built a chief’s house and about 60 other buildings on a high ridge, and married local women.

In 1789, Colonel William Bligh bountyThe man depicted in this 1814 portrait was the first European to map the Fiji coast.

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Bridgeman Images.

This ax was used to kill British missionary Thomas Baker on Viti Levu in July 1867. By the early 1870s, villagers in the area had sided with the highland tribes in a guerrilla war against the first unified Fijian government.

Photo courtesy of Bridgeman Images

By the early 1870s, villagers in the area had sided with the highland Kaikoro people in a guerrilla war against the first Fijian unified government led by the Christian monarch Cakobau. In 1874, the King signed the transfer of Fiji’s sovereignty to the British Empire and sailed to Sydney to celebrate the annexation. There he and his diplomatic party contracted measles. Once they returned home, the virus quickly spread to people without immunity. Approximately 40,000 indigenous Fijians died from the terrible epidemic. Meanwhile, British and Cakobau forces began a brutal campaign to defeat Kai Koro and his allies. During the fighting in 1876, Tavni was burned and the rebels integrated into the highlands. Abandoned, this formidable fortress soon became a dense forest.

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“It was all jungle,” says Lanieta Laulau, who grew up in a village near Tavni. “We used to come here to pick up firewood, but we didn’t know anything about its past.” Local residents cleared the site in the 1980s, and archaeologists made it accessible to tourists. To ensure this, the foundations and protective walls of dozens of houses surrounding the steep slope were exposed. Laulau was one of those who helped clear the thick brush and now serves as the caretaker of the National Historic Monument, which is leased to the government by local tribes.

When a local tribal chief passed away in February, villagers chose to bury him at the highest point in Tabni. While digging the grave, a large amount of human bones were found. “There were a lot of bones,” Laulau said. “This was not one person’s grave,” she added. “They were all jumbled together.”

Laulau opposed the villagers’ decision to dig graves at the historic site, but negotiated the preservation of dozens of bones for scientific analysis. The rest were reburied. During her March visit, she retrieved a clear plastic bag from the visitor center office and gently placed the recovered bones on an outdoor picnic table. These include a human skull, a jawbone with intact teeth, and numerous arm and leg bones.

Elia Nakoro, a senior archaeologist at the Fiji Museum, said only two such mass graves had been found in the archipelago, but the bodies were reburied without being analyzed. Both were located near hill forts. He added that some skeletal parts have been found outside traditional graves, part of the practice of rattling bones into villages to scare off intruders.

Given that Tavuni was occupied solely by traditional Fijians, Laulau argues that the dead were probably defeated warriors consumed by soldiers killed by the fortress’ garrison. . “They ate the meat and left the bones, which they buried in chunks,” Laulau said, pointing to a nearby monolith that, according to local tradition, was the site of the ritual execution of prisoners. while talking. Archaeological evidence from human bones slaughtered in the archipelago suggests that the practice dates back to ancient times, but was probably practiced only under strict ceremonial conditions.

However, Nakoro believes the bones likely belong to people who died during the measles epidemic of 1875, before the fort was burned. Patrick Nunn, an archaeologist at Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast, agrees. “This is almost certainly a 19th century mass “It was a century when Fiji’s population was decimated by measles and influenza, to which it had no natural resistance,” he says. Children were particularly vulnerable. The disease originated in cattle in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago and did not make it to the South Pacific until Europeans arrived. So many died that the weakened survivors would have a hard time filling them.

Nakoro plans to send the bones to Nan’s lab for research. The analysis should provide important data about the victims’ ages, genders and causes of death, as well as clues as to when they died. Cannibalism would be revealed if researchers detect signs of slaughter in the bones, but the disease could be identified through molecular studies of the remains.

Until then, Laulau will be keeping a close eye on the rare find while sleeping in the visitor center to protect the bones from damage or theft. However, her husband refused to attend her wake. “He told me, ‘I don’t sleep here,'” she says with a smile. “‘These are your ancestors, but I’m from another state. They might attack me!'”

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“Merchants and missionaries once called this region the Cannibal Islands. The recent discovery of human remains there may provide insight into its turbulent history. ”
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