Cemetery in Vanuatu sheds light on the Polynesians in the Pacific

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Bones from a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Vanuatu suggest that the earliest humans in the pacific were more similar to that of Polynesian and Asian populations rather than the Melanesian observed today.

Skeletons from Teouma cemetery. Source: ABC News 20151229

Skeletons from Teouma cemetery. Source: ABC News 20151229

Early Lapita skeletons from Vanuatu show Polynesian craniofacial shape: Implications for Remote Oceanic settlement and Lapita origins
PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516186113

Study of ancient skulls from Vanuatu cemetery sheds light on Polynesian migration, scientists say
ABC News, 29 December 2015

New insights on origin of Polynesians
Popular Archaeology, 28 December 2015

3,000-year-old burial ground may reveal secrets of Polynesian migration
The Guardian, 28 December 2015

With a cultural and linguistic origin in Island Southeast Asia the Lapita expansion is thought to have led ultimately to the Polynesian settlement of the east Polynesian region after a time of mixing/integration in north Melanesia and a nearly 2,000-y pause in West Polynesia. One of the major achievements of recent Lapita research in Vanuatu has been the discovery of the oldest cemetery found so far in the Pacific at Teouma on the south coast of Efate Island, opening up new prospects for the biological definition of the early settlers of the archipelago and of Remote Oceania in general. Using craniometric evidence from the skeletons in conjunction with archaeological data, we discuss here four debated issues: the Lapita–Asian connection, the degree of admixture, the Lapita–Polynesian connection, and the question of secondary population movement into Remote Oceania.

Full paper here.

Southeast Asia's Common Roots

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Southeast Asia is the crossroads to a number of human migrations, the largest of which must have been the Austronesian migration. Somewhere between 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, the Austronesians migrated from Southeast China or Taiwan, down the Philippine islands before splitting east to Polynesia and West to Southeast Asia. Based on linguistic and archaeological evidence, the Austronesians are though to be the precursors to modern Polynesians and Malays. This travel piece from Malaysia’s Star visits what may be one of the homelands of the Austronesians – Tanshishan, in Southeast China.

Common roots
The Star, 24 September 2008
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Pacific Islanders’ Ancestry Emerges in Genetic Study

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New light is shed of how the pacific islands were populated in a study published in the journal of the Public Library of Science – Genetics. The new study shows that the pacific islanders share very little genetic traits with those from Melanesia (the region encompassing Maluku to the east and Fiji to the west) and have much more in common with the aboriginies in Taiwan and East Asia. This in turn infers that a human migration from Taiwan eastwards had little interaction with Melanesia, and that the colonization of the pacific islands were not a result of Melanesians moving east.

Pacific Islanders’ Ancestry Emerges in Genetic Study
New York Times, 18 January 2008
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Chickens prove Polynesians crossed Pacific


05 June 2007 (News in Science, National Geographic) – Why did the Chicken cross the pacific? Because the Polynesians brought them there, it seems. A 600-year-old chicken bone from Chile is found to be carrying a rare mutation that can be traced to the Polynesian islands, thus strengthening the idea that the Polynesian islanders were able to traverse the pacific, and overturning the assumption that chickens were imported into the New World by Columbus.

Chickens originated from Southeast Asia, and could have been brought to the Polynesian islands from the Austronesian expansion and migration from between 5,000 and 2,500 BC. Originating from Taiwan, the expansion travelled down to Philippines, Borneo and the Moluccas; some went westwards towards Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula while others headed eastward towards Polynesia by 500 AD.

The tracing of chickens to a Polynesian origin also refutes one of the assertions in Gavin Menzies’ 1421 thesis, who argued that the existence of chickens in South America before Columbus was due to the fact that the Chinese Ming fleets were there first!

Polynesians made first takeaway chicken

A chicken bone found in Chile provides solid evidence to settle a debate over whether Polynesians travelling on rafts visited South America thousands of years ago, or vice versa, researchers say.

The DNA in the bone carries a rare mutation that links it to chickens in Tonga and Samoa.

And radiocarbon dating shows the bone is around 600 years old, meaning it predates the arrival of the Spanish in South America.

Polynesians – And Their Chickens – Arrived in Americas Before Columbus

The greatest testament we have today to the sailing abilities of the ancient Polynesians may be found in a few ancient chicken bones, a new study reveals.

The bones, which scientists recently dug up from a site on the central coast of Chile, offer a startling conclusion: Polynesians beat Columbus to the Americas by probably a century or more, arriving at the latest in the early 1400s.

This means Polynesians not only colonized nearly every island in the South Pacific—making journeys over thousands of miles—but they also made the long hop all the way to the Americas.

The study may put an end to a raging debate about how chickens were introduced to the New World, the authors suggest.

The paper will be published very soon in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but in the meantime, you can read more about the implications of the chicken bone find in News in Science and the National Geographic.

Books about the Austronesian migration from Southeast Asia:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood
Indo-Pacific Prehistory 1990. Proceedings of the 14th Congress Held at Yogyakarta. Vol 1 & 2. by P. Bellwood (Ed)
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood
The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia by N. Tarling (Ed.)