It was only 3000 years ago that humans first set foot on Fiji and other isolated islands of the Pacific, having sailed across thousands of kilometers of ocean. Yet the identity of these intrepid seafarers has been lost to time. They left a trail of distinctive red pottery but few other clues, and scientists have confronted two different scenarios: The explorers were either farmers who sailed directly from mainland East Asia to the remote islands, or people who mixed with hunter-gatherers they met along the way in Melanesia, including Papua New Guinea.
Now, the first genome-wide study of ancient DNA from prehistoric Polynesians has boosted the first idea: that these ancient mariners were East Asians who swept out into the Pacific. It wasn’t until much later that Melanesians, probably men, ventured out into Oceania and mixed with the Polynesians.
“The paper is a game-changer,” says Cristian Capelli, a population geneticist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, noting that that it settles a decades-long dispute. By showing that the East Asians hopscotched past islands already populated by Melanesians without picking up their genes, it is also a case study in how culture can initially bar mixing between groups. “Farmers move in and don’t mix much with the hunter-gatherers,” says evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas of University College London. “We see this again and again and again” elsewhere in the world.
The first Polynesians left plenty of tantalizing artifacts, including distinctive stamped red pottery, obsidian tools, and shell ornaments. Collectively known as the Lapita culture, this set of artifacts first appeared more than 3000 years ago in the Bismarck Archipelago in New Oceania (see map below). This culture grew taro, yams, and breadfruit; brought pigs and chickens; and spread rapidly to the islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia and eventually to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and beyond.