Genetic study reveals how ancient sailors settled in vast Polynesia

WASHINGTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) – More than a millennium ago, intrepid sailors crossed vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean in double-hulled sailing canoes to reach the remote islands of Polynesia, the last region habitable of the planet to be colonized.

A genetic study published on Wednesday deciphered the timing and sequence of this colonization of an area covering around a third of the Earth’s surface, with Samoa as the starting point while Rapa Nui, also called Easter Island, and other places known for their megalithic statues were among the last to be reached.

“A lot of the distances were huge,” said Stanford University computational geneticist Alexander Ioannidis, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

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For example, the study found that Rapa Nui was settled around AD 1210 after a deep-sea voyage covering approximately 1,600 miles (2,575 km). Historians believe that family groups of perhaps 30 to 200 people sailed at a time in double-hulled canoes which operated similarly to modern catamarans and used a lateen or triangular sail.

Genomic data from 430 modern people from 21 Pacific island populations has helped unravel the genetic history of Polynesia.

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

The first voyages are found to have been from Samoa to Fiji and Tonga, then to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands in the 9th century AD. In the 11th century, the islands of Totaiete ma (Society Islands) come next, followed in the 12th century by Tuha’a Pae (Austral Islands) and the Tuamotu archipelago.

Eventually, in the 12th and 13th centuries, sailors from Mangareva in the Gambier Islands reached Te Henua ‘Enana (Marquesas Islands), Rapa Nui and Raivavae – places where megaliths like the monumental stone statues of the head and torso of Rapa Nui, known as moai, were created. .

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

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

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

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

“It was initially about voyages into the unknown, and it is believed that the Polynesians sailed against the wind so that if they didn’t find a new island, they could come back,” added Ioannidis.

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

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

“The discovery of a common genetic source for the inhabitants of the eastern islands where megalithic sites have been found is not an intuitive connection given the distance and dispersal of these island groups,” said Moreno- Platform.

The researchers dated these long journeys close to when, as detailed in their genetic study published last year, there was contact between Polynesians and native South Americans.

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

While Samoa was the springboard for the colonization of remote Polynesia, scholars have characterized it as merely an intermediate stage in a greater Pacific regional human expansion beginning in Taiwan around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Samoa is believed to have been settled around 800 BC.

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Reporting by Will Dunham, editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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