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Bones of Ancient Polynesians Reveal Gender Inequality in Meat Consumption

Update Date: Mar 06, 2014 08:01 PM EST

Detailed analysis of 3,000-year-old skeletons from the oldest known cemetery located in the Pacific Islands reveal that ancient Pacific settlers dined on reef fish, fruit bats, free-range pigs and chickens.

Scientists came to the conclusion after analyzing stable isotope ratios of three elements in the bone collagen of 49 Lapita adults buried at the Teouma archaeological site on Vanuatu's Efate Island. The latest findings go against previous studies that suggest that the Lapita people relied primarily on farming and animal fodder for food.

Lead researcher Dr. Rebecca Kinaston and her colleagues said that the latest study is one of the most detailed analyses of Lapita diet ever conducted and provides fascinating insights into the socio-cultural elements of their society. Scientists measured the isotopic ratios of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur in adult human bone collagen and compared these with ratios in ancient and modern plants and animals from the location, which provided a comprehensive dietary baseline.

"It was a unique opportunity to assess the lifeways of a colonizing population on a tropical Pacific island," Kinaston said.

"Examining these ratios gave us direct evidence of the broad make-up of these adults' diets over the 10-20 years before they died, which helps clear up the long-running debate about how the Lapita settlers sustained themselves during the early phases of colonizing each island during their eastward drive across the Pacific," she added.

Researchers said the findings suggest that rather than relying on "transported landscape of crops and domesticated animals they brought with the, the new colonists practiced a mixed subsistence strategy.

"The dietary pattern we found suggests that in addition to eating pigs and chickens, settlers were also foraging for a variety of marine food and consuming wild animals-especially fruit bats-and that whatever horticultural food they produced was not heavily relied on," she said.

Researchers added that isotopic analysis of ancient pig bones found at the site also suggest that the animals were free-ranging rather than farmed and given fodder from harvested crops.

Interestingly, the human bones showed that there were sex differences in diet compositions. The finings revealed that Lapita men had more varied diets and consumed more protein from sources like tortoises, pigs and chicken than women did.

"This may have resulted from unequal food distribution, suggesting that males may have been considered of higher status in Lapita society and treated preferentially," Kinaston explained.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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