What ancient chickens and rats can tell us about the Pacific people’s origins

Ancient animal remains could answer outstanding questions about the earliest Pacific settlers and their movements, using the latest D.N.A. technology to read all genetic material, rather than the 1.5 per cent previously available to scientists.

With a NZ$300,000 (T$530,000) grant from the Marsden Fund, Dr. Catherine Collins and Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith from the University of Otago are investigating genetic material from across the Pacific, to see where the Lapita people came from and where they went around the year 450 CE. 

Lapita were prehistoric Pacific Ocean people who traversed the Pacific Islands from 1600 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. (Before Common Era). Archaeologists have long considered them the ancestors of Polynesia, Micronesia and some parts of Melanesia too.

While it is believed they originated in Taiwan, Dr. Collin’s hopes to figure out exactly where they came from, by studying the animals they brought with them on their expert seafaring across the ocean. 

In 2016, D.N.A. research found the first evidence of the Lapita peoples' Taiwanese lineage, proving the theories previously considered “conjecture,” the Australian Centre for Ancient D.N.A. director Professor Alan Cooper told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the time. 

Dr. Collins said the hope is the research will refine scientific understanding of how Central and East Polynesia were settled by studying human migration over thousands of years. 

“The origins of the Lapita people, and their interactions with other people in the Pacific, remain unclear” the University of Otago grant announcement states.

“Current datasets are also not sufficient to understand the settlement of Central and East Polynesia.”

Speaking to the New Zealand Herald, Dr. Collins explained that previously just 250 base pairs of D.N.A. could be studied, but that new technology allows researchers to look at the entire 16,500 base pairs: the entire genetic makeup of the DNA.

By looking closely at animal remains of creatures brought to the islands by humans (chickens and kiore - Polynesian rat), the migration narrative will emerge more clearly. Animal remains are more abundant than ancient human remains in the Pacific too, the scientist added. 

The researchers have all the genetic material they need and will not need to do any more excavations. While the material will be “relatively degraded” compared to DNA found in colder places, previous research in the team’s laboratory has had success in this area, Dr. Collins said.

“Islands provide a unique opportunity to use animal remains to study past human movements,” she said. “The only way that they could have arrived at each island is via humans transporting them. 

“On a continent, it can be difficult to distinguish between an animal appearing in the archaeological record due to being transported by humans or due to migrating there on its own accord.

“Studying the animals can also reveal more complexity in the processes surrounding the migration of humans in this part of the world and can inform us of how humans used their resources and modified the environment when settling new areas,” Dr. Collins said.

Understanding this could add brand new knowledge onto what scientists already know about humans in the Pacific Islands.

“We anticipate that the results from this study will fit into the ‘bigger picture’, and assist us in understanding the processes of the settlement of the Pacific,” Dr. Collins said.

“Understanding these processes can provide valuable insights into the founding populations.”

The genetic data should complement other research to help build a “holistic way to study the settlement of the Pacific,” the scientist said.

“Combining knowledge from a range of sources will allow us to build a more complete picture about what was going on in the Pacific during the time of settlement.”

The study may also provide insights into the role of genetics in health issues of modern day Pacific Islanders, though it is not especially looking at health. 

Another study Professor Matisoo-Smith is involved in is investigating the root of gout in Pacific Islanders, by looking at whether genetic responses to malaria could be the reason gout and other non-communicable diseases are so prevalent in the region’s people. 

The study, also funded by the Marsden Fund with an NZ$3 million (T$5.3 million) grant is a Pacific wide evolutionary study

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