Mortuary patterns in burial caves on Mangaia, Cook Islands



The behavioural, cultural, and political implications of archaeological human remains in non-mortuary, possibly culinary, contexts requires that we understand the range of mortuary practices in a particular region. Although several rockshelter sites on Mangaia, Cook Islands have yielded burned, fragmentary human bones in earth ovens that seem to support archaeological models and ethnohistoric accounts of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism, the absence of data on the range of Mangaian mortuary patterns obscures these interpretations. We describe burial patterns based on 40 above-ground interments representing at least 92 individuals in caves of Mangaia, Cook Islands, in order to begin to develop an island-wide perspective on mortuary patterns. Sampling both pre- and post-European contact sites we found that multiple interments dominate probable pre-contact burials (73%, 19 of 26) and single interments dominate post-contact contexts (80%, eight of ten burials), probably reflecting the influence of Christianity on mortuary ritual. Subadults were more frequent in all post-contact contexts suggesting alternative burial places, probably church cemeteries, for adults. Burial cave remains are broadly consistent with ethnohistoric accounts of interment in caves, however, they also illustrate additional burial practices and differences between time periods, such as primary body position and the role of multiple-individual interments, which are not discussed ethnohistorically. The mortuary practices in Mangaian burial caves differ from burials associated with marae and seem completely unrelated to the presence of highly fragmentary and burnt human remains in pre-contact rockshelter middens elsewhere on the island. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.