Saturday, 23 October, 2021

Genetic study reveals how ancient seafarers settled vast territory in the Pacific


“Each living individual retains a genetic record of all the ancestors from whom they inherited their DNA, so by analysing together hundreds of individuals we can create a genomic network where connections, splitting patterns and dates can be inferred,” said geneticist and study co-author Andres Moreno-Estrada of Mexico’s CINVESTAV network of research centres.

“It is one of the most impressive and fascinating chapters of human expansion and long-distance exploration,” Moreno-Estrada said.

Genomic data from 430 people from 21 Pacific island populations, including Samoa, helped unravel Polynesia’s genetic history.

Genomic data from 430 people from 21 Pacific island populations, including Samoa, helped unravel Polynesia’s genetic history.Credit:iStock

There has been an ongoing debate based on archaeological remains as to when the Polynesian islands were settled.

“Unraveling these histories is not only a fascinating challenge, but also an incredible demonstration that modern populations are still connected physically to their ancestors’ stories,” Ioannidis said.

Navigation may have involved following the paths of long-distance seabirds as well as guidance from the stars, winds, weather, ocean currents and water patterns caused by islands and atolls. The voyagers brought with them crops like the root vegetable taro and food sources such as chickens.

“These were initially voyages into the unknown, and it is believed that Polynesians would sail upwind so that if they were unable to find a new island they could return,” Ioannidis added.

Nuku Hiva, Marquesa Islands, in French Polynesia.

Nuku Hiva, Marquesa Islands, in French Polynesia.Credit:Alamy

Polynesians established sophisticated artistic and cultural traditions in carving, boat ornamentation, religious and social rules, the practice of tattooing and, in Rapa Nui, North Marquesas, South Marquesas and Raivavae, megalithic statues.

The people of the megalith islands were found to be genetically connected, settled from a common Tuamotu origin.

“The discovery of a common genetic source for people on the eastern islands where megalithic sites have been found is not an intuitive connection given how distant and widely dispersed these group of islands are,” Moreno-Estrada said.

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The researchers dated those lengthy voyages close to the time when, as detailed in their genetic study published last year, there was contact by Polynesians with native people in South America.

“This suggests that when the maritime culture of the widely spread Tuamotu Archipelago was embarking on its longest voyages of discovery, which gave rise to widely dispersed monumental sculpture-building populations, it also made contact with the Americas,” Ioannidis said.

While Samoa was the springboard for remote Polynesia’s settlement, the researchers called it merely an intermediate stop in a larger Pacific regional human expansion beginning in Taiwan around 4000 to 5000 years ago. It is believed Samoa was settled by around 800 BC.

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