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Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

21 Feb

A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.

In late 2003, while clearing land just above the seaside, a bulldozer driver found a broken piece of pottery in the rubble. The villagers of Vanuatu often happen upon shards of timeworn ceramic, which spark an idly mythical curiosity; they’re said to be fragments of Noah’s Ark, or the original Ten Commandments, or the burst water vessels of powerful ancestral spirits. These shards are often left alone, but word in this particular case traveled quickly, and the artifact soon found its way to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and National Museum, where Stuart Bedford, a New Zealand archaeologist who had studied local pot shards for years, was called in to inspect it. He immediately recognized its distinctive pattern — “dentate stamping,” an ancient technique so named because it looked as though some tiny-toothed creature had bitten an intricate pattern into the ceramic — and understood that this pottery coincided with the very first movement of ancient peoples into the South Seas.

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Posted by on February 21, 2019 in Reportages

 

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