for National Geographic News
The ancestors of today's Polynesians and Micronesians were probably East Asians who quickly island-hopped through Near Oceania—what is now Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands—a new genetic study suggests.
Jonathan Friedlaender and colleagues found that the two modern-day groups show little genetic relation to the indigenous peoples of Near Oceania. (See an Oceania map.)
The finding supports theories that Polynesians instead descended from East Asians and aboriginal Taiwanese who apparently raced through the region.
"They left very few genes behind," said Friedlaender, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
"And they incorporated very few genes from the people in this region of Near Oceania, [although] they stayed for three or four hundred years before moving on to explore the central Pacific islands, where they became Polynesians and Micronesians," added Friedlaender, whose project was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
The study also reveals that Melanesian peoples (those from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji) harbor incredible genetic diversity—evidence of tens of thousands of years of relative isolation and a series of small migrations from Asia.
"There's more population divergence in these islands than you see across all of Europe," Friedlaender said. "You can really tell by the way people look, and now genetically, what island they are from."
Archaeologist Patrick Kirch said, "It's what you'd expect over a long time period like that.
"You see the same complexity in languages. New Guinea alone has something like 900 languages in its interior. That's probably the highest density of language differential per square mile in the world," said Kirch, of the University of California, Berkeley.
The new research appears in the January issue of the journal PLoS Genetics.
Archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists have spent decades pondering how humans settled the Pacific islands.
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