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The Austronesian peoples were a seafaring group who spread far and wide in the dawn of prehistory, from Taiwan and eastern Asia as far south and west as Madagascar, and blazed trails into the islands of the South Pacific like Vanuatu. Their language came with them.

Even though the people from Oceania and other islands migrated and eventually genetically displaced these Austronesian pioneers, the original language survived for thousands of years – and continues to be a legacy of the genetically lost first inhabitants of such places as Rapa Nui (Easter Island), according to a new study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“The demographic history suggested by our ancient DNA analyses provides really strong support for this historical linguistic model, with the early arrival and complex, incremental process of genetic replacement by people from the Bismarck Archipelago,” said Adam Powell, senior author, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “This provides a compelling explanation for the continuity of Austronesian languages despite the almost complete replacement of the initial genetic ancestry of Vanuatu.”

Full genomes were pulled from 19 sets of remains found on Vanuatu, Tonga, French Polynesia, and the Solomon Islands. Most of the valuable genetic material was pulled from the inner-ear skeletal sources, according to Kathrin Nagele, also of MPI-SHH.

“The identification of the petrous bone, which has recently been shown to provide fantastic aDNA preservation, has been a real game changer for such regions that were previously considered to be almost inaccessible,” she said.

The genetic material sequenced from those ancient sources was compared against 27 modern inhabitants of Vanuatu, which is considered the gateway to the rest of the archipelago.

The DNA did not match.

Instead, the ancient DNA matched some of the modern sources from Papua New Guinea, according to the researchers. The takeover of Vanuatu and other parts of Remote Oceania did not occur at one time, but rather over a long time of transition, according to Cosimo Poth, another Max Planck scientist who authored the work.

The admixture was mostly the Papuan males having children with Austronesian woman, according to the genetic analyses over many generations.

But still, the languages live on – a unique condition considering the changes wrought on the island communities, the scientists add.

“Population replacement with language continuity is extremely rare – if not unprecedented – in human history,” said Russell Gray, another Max Planck scientist who was one of the authors.

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