updated 8/27/2004 4:25:20 PM ET 2004-08-27T20:25:20

Headless bodies buried 3,000 years ago in the oldest cemetery in the Pacific could reveal much about the earliest settlers of Vanuatu, Fiji and Polynesia, Australian archeologists said on Friday.

The burial site,which was accidentally uncovered by a bulldozer driver building an embankment for a prawn farm, contains the oldest human remains yet found in the region.

Archeologists say the discovery will unearth many clues about the appearance and culture of the Lapita people, some of the earliest settlers of the Pacific islands and believed to be ancestors of the region's Polynesian people.

"This is easily one of the most significant sites of the Pacific," Matthew Spriggs, a lead archaeologist in the joint study by the Australian National University and the Vanuatu National Museum, said in a statement.

He said the skeletons would show archeologists what Lapita people, thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, would have looked like, and the way they were buried likely will shed light on aspects of their culture.

All of the adult skeletons at the burial site were missing heads, Spriggs said. Archaeologists working at the site found the heads had been removed from the bodies sometime after burial and were replaced with shell bracelets.

Spriggs' statement did not suggest why the heads were removed from the bodies and he could not immediately be reached for comment.

Spriggs said so few remains of the Lapita people had been discovered at other archaeological sites that researchers had previously thought they must have been buried at sea.

"At this site, everywhere we put a hole we dug up bodies," Spriggs said.

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