Genetic Chaos

Monday, November 29, 2004

The Peopling of the Pacific

Archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists struggle to understand the origins of the bold seafarers who settled the remote Pacific Islands.

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Origins and dispersals of Pacific peoples: Evidence from mtDNA phylogenies of the Pacific rat

The human settlement of the Pacific in general, and the origin of the Polynesians in particular, have been topics of debate for over two centuries. Polynesian origins are most immediately traced to people who arrived in the Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa region ~3,000 B.P. and are clearly associated with the Lapita Cultural Complex. Although this scenario of the immediate origins of the Polynesians is generally accepted, the debate on the ultimate origin of the Polynesians and the Lapita cultural complex continues. Our previous research has shown that analyses of mtDNA variation in the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), often transported as a food item in the colonizing canoes, are valuable for tracing prehistoric human migration within Polynesia. Here we present mtDNA phylogenies based on ~240 base pairs of the D-loop from both archaeological and modern samples collected from Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific. We identify three major haplogroups, two of which occur in the Pacific. Comparing our results with Lapita models of Oceanic settlement, we are able to reject two often cited but simplistic models, finding support instead for multifaceted models incorporating a more complex view of the Lapita intrusion. This study is unique and valuable in that R. exulans is the only organism associated with the Lapita dispersal for which there are sufficient ancient and extant populations available for genetic analysis. By tracking population changes through time, we can understand more fully the settlement process and population interactions in both Near and Remote Oceania.

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