An international team of scientists has combined innovative machine-learning techniques with population genetics to provide the most accurate map to date of the earliest migrations through the Pacific Islands, opening a window into one of humanity’s most epic journeys.
The team, led by Andrés Moreno-Estrada, Alexander Ioannidis and colleagues, used a dataset of samples from 430 present-day Polynesians to build a picture of the routes taken to populate this vast stretch of islands, some separated by thousands of kilometres of volatile ocean. The findings are published today in the journal Nature.
The analysis suggests that the migration began in Samoa and spread first through Rarotonga (Cook Islands) in the 9th century AD, the Tōtaiete mā (Society Islands) in the 11th century, the western Tuhaʻa Pae (Austral Islands) and Tuāmotu Archipelago in the 12th century, and finally to the Te Henua ʻEnana (Marquesas Islands) in the north, Raivavae in the south, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the easternmost of the Polynesian islands, which was settled in approximately AD 1200 via Mangareva.
The team also found particularly close genetic links between the Marquesas, Raivavae and Rapa Nui – islands that all have ancient stone monoliths – despite the vast distances between them. Moreover, they pinpointed that the peopling of these last islands coincided with first contact with Native Americans, whose DNA can be found throughout the region.
So, how did they do it?