Sea level rise unearths burial site in Torres Strait

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Long ago, a young woman met a violent end on the island of Muralug in the Torres Strait. Modern science may soon tell us the story of his life.

His grave was uncovered by rising sea levels and a record royal tide earlier this year.

A few months later, an archaeological team began excavating the site, led by University of Queensland associate professor Michael Westaway.

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“It was the royal tide they had in February,” he said Tropic.

“We know that the highest royal tide on record was in April 2015.

“The royal tide that happened last February was 10 centimeters higher than that.

“This is the highest sea level rise on record and it coincided with a storm surge, so it started destroying these untouched dunes that had never been exposed to this erosion before.”

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Prof Westaway said excavations on Muralug, or Prince of Wales Island, uncovered the full skeleton of an Aboriginal woman believed to be in her twenties.

“There was some pretty significant trauma,” he said.

“One of them appeared to be an injury to his fourth lumbar vertebra.

“She was buried with her hands on her pelvis, as if she had covered a terrible wound.

“There was a lot of conflict in the Torres Strait Islands, inter-tribal conflict and wars.”

The elders of the Kaurareg people of the Torres Strait have authorized the removal of a tooth from the woman’s remains for scientific testing.

Professor Westaway said these tests could provide a lot of information about the woman and could even reveal her connections to people currently living in Torres Strait.

“Hopefully in a few months we will have this fairly detailed story about his life,” he said.

“It’s really very exciting.

“We want to look at that person’s DNA and compare it to the living community.

“Members said they were interested in looking into this relationship.

“She probably lived before Europeans came to the country.

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“We can still do some pretty amazing things and that tells us a lot about who she was.

“But we can’t really say much more than that because there are no written records of people from that time.

“She was subsisting on a traditional diet, but we won’t be sure of her chronological age until we get the carbon back.”

Prof Westaway said the tooth will be tested for strontium isotopes to determine where the woman lived and travelled.

“You are what you eat,” he explained.

“If you live in an area, drink water, and eat plants or animals, you are ingesting the isotopic signature of that area.

“Then if you move to another area, you do the same thing. We can track where she moved during these years of her life.

“The Kaurareg people had marriage exchanges and partnerships with people at Cape Point.

“It’s really exciting because we’ll be able to talk about where this woman had connections from.

“That’s the story we hope to tell.”

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