historical photo taken in 1964 of the Futunese excavators in one of the caves

Historical photo dating back to1964, of the Futunese excavators in one of the caves

A Fascinating Tale from Futuna Island: Repatriating Ancestral Remains after 56 Years

23rd September 2021

Flashback to 1964. The late Richard and Mary Shutler were in the midst of conducting pioneering archaeological research deep inside caves in the Mission Bay or Ipau area on the remote island of Futuna in southern Vanuatu (then known as the New Hebrides). The caves were rich in archaeological deposits, with evidence of use going back 1,000 years. Three of these caves also had burials, and these remains were removed with the critical assistance of a team of local men who were key to the success of the work overall. The ancestral remains were recorded in detail, removed and ultimately packaged up and shipped to the United States for further analysis. They were to remain there in storage for more than 30 years with minimum research actually being carried out. They may have been forgotten for good, at least outside Futuna, had it not be for some fortuitous meetings in Port Vila.

Fast forward to the late 1990s when the VKS (Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta) was then under the direction of Ralph Regenvanu. Takaronga (Jimmy) Kuautonga of Futuna had also recently been appointed the Museum curator. Jimmy recalled well as a youngster the excavations on the island. He remembered visiting the cave sites and seeing the work being undertaken and seeing the skeletons being uncovered. “I think seeing this early research happening instilled a lasting interest in such research for me that would be rekindled again in the 1990s”.

In 1996, Jimmy was involved in an archaeological training workshop run by the VKS and ANU colleagues-- then Dr Matthew Spriggs (now Emeritus Professor), along with then new PhD student Stuart Bedford (now Dr at CHL and Max Planck). It was here that he began to think back to the research on Futuna. Jimmy again recalls “I remember one evening having kava with Matthew and the subject of the Futuna human remains came up. He said Richard Shutler was still alive and that he would get in contact with him”. This is exactly what happened and, ultimately, Ralph Regenvanu and Mathew Spriggs negotiated the repatriation of the Futuna skeletal remains, which were sent back to the National Museum in 1998. Jimmy felt a great wave of achievement that he had been a part of their arrival back in Port Vila, but he was determined that they make the further journey to Futuna. Dr Stuart Bedford has been instrumental in recently facilitating that further journey, 56 years after their departure from the island.

The return to the island didn’t happen in a hurry due to various reasons. However, in 2016, the VKS—in collaboration with Dr Bedford (ANU CHL and Max Planck), Dr. Frederique Valentin (CNRS) and Dr. James Flexner (University of Sydney)—initiated the Southern Vanuatu Archaeological Survey project, which was to revisit many of the islands and sites that had been surveyed in those earlier years and carry out further excavations applying new technologies. The final analysis and repatriation of the skeletal remains removed in 1964 from Futuna was included in the project.

Stuart1Procession to the burial site led by (L to R) Jimmy Kuautonga, Richard Shing and Fataba Yesbou, one of the three men still alive who participated in the 1964 excavations

According to Dr Bedford, it was a lengthy process organising everything for this repatriation, but he recounts the experience as one of the most rewarding in his many decades of working in the archipelago. The logistics for their return began months in advance, liaising with Jimmy, who had been based on Futuna since the destruction of the Tafea Cultural Centre during cyclone Pam in 2015. “We were totally guided by Jimmy, who had designed a crypt and listed the supplies required. These included 65 blocks, bags of cement, reinforcing steel, sheets of plywood, and tie wire. Anyone familiar with Futuna knows the challenging logistics of getting such materials from the beach up the steep cliff paths and finally to the site of the crypt. Jimmy was smart enough to hire the local youth group to do the heavy lifting.”

Dr Bedford added that he was “totally relieved when all the cartons arrived safely on the Saturday. It would not have been good, that after 56 years, had not all the cartons arrived at once for the ceremony!” Jimmy Takaronga concurs, “Remarkably, communications between Port Vila and Futuna were poor, so much of the planning and even the text for the plaque (in the Futunese language) were done via Sydney where James Flexner was based. I communicated with James via Messenger who then sent emails to Stuart in Port Vila. Replies came back to Futuna via Sydney!”

Stuart2Fatoriki Council of Chiefs of Futuna hold the cartons with the ancestral remains as they are taken to a crypt built for the repatriation ceremony at the old mission cemetery at Ipau

The VKS delegation included the Director Richard Shing, archaeologists Edson Willie and Iarawai Phillip and Len and Takau Jacob (of the Film Unit). Director Shing explained to the community that such repatriations are also part of the work of the VKS. “We are always making efforts to liaise with foreign institutions and individuals to repatriate material that originally came from Vanuatu. I feel personally very satisfied that these remains have been returned to their rightful place. The VKS supports archeological research but the export of materials is now strictly regulated as is archeological research itself and if communities decide that human remains can be investigated and that reburial is agreed after final analysis then we will make sure that it is facilitated”.

Funding for the repatriation came from the Australian Research Council (DP160103578) and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Stuart3The ancestral remains are passed down the line of Chiefs and placed in the crypt by Jimmy Kuautonga

Recently, a short video associated with the repatriation—just produced by the Film and Sound Unit of the VKS—highlights the return of these remains to the island and its associated ceremony. You can watch it here.

The formal ceremony of the repatriation was carried out on Monday, 9 November 2020. The events of the day began with the handing over of the skeletal remains by VKS Director Richard Shing to the Fatoriki Council of Chiefs of Futuna, who then proceeded to lead all assembled to the crypt that had been constructed at the old mission cemetery. The boxes of remains were passed along, down a row of chiefs, to their final resting place. The last person on the line who helped place the cartons in the crypt was Nalau Serangi, one of the original excavators. Pastor Rosse Miake of the Mission Bay Presbyterian Church blessed the remains before they were sealed in the crypt.

Once sealed, a plaque was placed on it with the names of all those involved in the excavations of 1964.

Ta mentua ia ivi tangata niawia e Richard ma Mary Shutler ma tafutuna ni fijikau a Ravei Samana, Vaenga Liji, Natuka Liji, Situ Mangau, Popoina Mangau, Navalak Nauni, Tosso Naelo, Fatapa Iespou, Nalau Seirangi ia 1964 i Feiana, Tapipi ma Kiporu. Ipau Futuna. Novemba 2020.

(Here lie the ancestral remains removed by Richard and Mary Shutler and Ravei Samana, Vaenga Liji, Natuka Liji, Situ Mangau, Popoina Mangau, Navalak Nauni, Tosso Naelo, Fatapa Iespou, Nalau Seirangi in 1964 at Feiana, Tapipi and Kiporu. Ipau Futuna. November 2020.)

And with that, after more than half a century, a critical part of Futuna’s ancestral heritage rests in peace in its rightful place—home.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster