1. The Ghosts of Teouma
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.
Bedford rushed to the site of the discovery, an old colonial coconut plantation that the bulldozer had been clearing for use as a prawn farm. Further burrowing turned up not only more pottery but also tools of obsidian and a great cache of human bones, which had lain undisturbed and unusually well preserved over thousands of years. The site was soon identified as the oldest and largest prehistoric cemetery ever found in the Pacific. Everything at the site indicated a founding colony — first arrivals to the shores of uninhabited islands. Teouma was, according to Bedford, “unlike anything anyone had ever seen, or was likely to see, in this part of the world ever again.”
Archaeologists hoped the bones might help provide a clue to the abiding mystery of how anybody had gotten to these far-off coastlines in the first place. Vanuatu is a volcanic archipelago of more than 80 islands littered in an extended slingshot shape across an 800-mile arc of the South Pacific. Europeans first heard of its existence in 1606, when a Portuguese navigator stopped through on a brief but violent imperial errand for the Spanish crown. The islands were largely left to their own devices until the end of the 18th century, when French and British ships arrived to plant their own flags. The two countries ruled the archipelago as a joint colony, called the Condominium of the New Hebrides, until independence was achieved in 1980. National coherence remains a work in progress. By some measures, Vanuatu is per capita the most linguistically diverse country on the planet: Its quarter-million citizens, predominantly the native ni-Vanuatu, speak as many as 140 different indigenous languages and maintain an astonishing variety of cultural practices. A meaningful national identity has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt. Above all, however, the ni-Vanuatu are bound together by the fact of the country’s nautical isolation: Their nearest neighbors are hundreds of miles in any direction.
To read the full article written by Gideon Lewis-Krause from "New York Times Magazine" hit here