Three Phases of Ancient Migration Shaped the Ancestry of Human Populations in Vanuatu

Historic photo of excavation of Roi Mata’s Grave on Eretok/Hat Island in 1967, from Jose Garanger’s 1972 book about his archaeological research. DNA samples from some of the skeletons from here were used in this study.

The study of ancient DNA – genetic material recovered from very old skeletons – is really advancing knowledge of people’s ancestry today across the world. In the Pacific the undoubted centre for such study is Vanuatu. This is thanks to long-term collaboration between the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS), The Australian National University (ANU) and Harvard University’s Medical School and other Departments at Harvard in the USA.

Results of three earlier studies published since 2016 have been reported in the Daily Post before, and today (Wednesday October 14, Vanuatu time) the latest research on ancient DNA from archaeological sites in Vanuatu is being published in one of the top world science journals, Current Biology.

The title is the same as the title to this article, revealing that prior to contact with Europeans and Asians in the last couple of hundred years, there were three major migrations of people over the last 3000 years that led to the ancestry of modern Ni-Vanuatu.

The latest study generated genome-wide (patterns from the entirety of a person’s DNA) information from 11 new samples of ancient Ni-Vanuatu spanning the period from Lapita colonisation 3000 years ago to the early years of European contact. These new samples were compared to 34 already published ancient people from Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific.

The first result was that four people from the Lapita site of Teouma, outside of Port Vila, proved to have a similar ancestry to eight previously analysed Lapita-associated individuals from Vanuatu and Tonga. Almost all of their ancestry was from East Asia, more specifically what is now Southern China and closely related to the modern native peoples of Taiwan and a northern Philippines population called the Kankaneay.

They came from a region where rice agriculture was first developed and spread a farming culture through Island Southeast Asia and into the Pacific, where we know of it as the Lapita culture. Lapita sites in Vanuatu, now known from the Banks Islands to Aneityum, are the earliest signs of human presence in the Republic some 3000 years ago. On current evidence they were a population that had avoided the main Solomons chain of islands, moving from the Lapita ‘homeland’ on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago just to the east of the larger island of New Guinea. This is where we first pick up the East Asian trail in Melanesia. They then went straight to Temotu Province of the Solomons (the Reefs-Santa Cruz group) and on to Vanuatu.

Probably in Late Lapita times, perhaps from about 2800 years ago or 800BC onwards, a second migratory group of ‘Papuans’, also from the island of New Britain, followed the same migration pathway to Vanuatu and began to mix with the small East Asian population already there.

The term ‘Papuan’ simply means the ancestral line that contributes the majority of the ancestry in the New Guinea and Solomons region. These Papuans were the first modern humans to reach the New Guinea area perhaps more than 50,000 years ago and spread through the Bismarck Archipelago and main Solomon Islands; but they never reached Vanuatu at that time.

They were hunting and gathering people but had started to develop farming based on yams, taro and bananas before East Asian populations reached the area.

Most Ni-Vanuatu today are a mixture of these two groups, East Asian and Papuan but the majority of their ancestry, up to 90 per cent in some cases, is Papuan from New Britain. The population outside Vanuatu that is most similar in ancestry to modern Ni-Vanuatu are the Baining people of East New Britain province in PNG, famous for their fire walking dance and their elaborate traditional masks used in kastom ceremonies. The people of New Britain are also the only other people in the Pacific known to have produced tusker pigs with full-circle tusks, such as are so common in northern Vanuatu.

The early presence of Papuan people from New Britain in Vanuatu by about 2500 years ago is the second result of the study. The third is that some groups in Vanuatu also have ancestry from Polynesians who migrated west from Polynesia within the last 1000 years. This will be no news to the people of Futuna, Aniwa, Mele, Ifira and some of the people of Emae, who speak Polynesian languages.

But although their languages are Polynesian, the majority of their ancestry still comes from the mixture of early East Asians and early Papuans.

Some Polynesians clearly did arrive in Vanuatu up to 1000 years ago and imposed their languages upon the people of the islands they landed on, but most of the ancestry of people on Ifira, Mele and these other islands is much older and comes from the mixture of newcomers with long established populations. The genetic mixing extended beyond the so-called Polynesian Outlier islands, with individuals sharing some Polynesian ancestry common across Efate and the Shepherds and also on Aneityum.

The study particularly looked at skeletons from Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, from Eretoka (Hat Island) and Roi Mata’s village of Mangaas on mainland Efate. Signs of Polynesia ancestry were very clear in some of the Chief’s followers 400 years ago, to an extent not seen in any Vanuatu populations today after a further 400 years of intermarriage. We cannot tell exactly where in Western Polynesia these Polynesians came from – kastom stories may be able to give us further clues. But we know they did not all come from the same place in Polynesia as the Polynesian ancestry in Futuna (and Aneityum) is from a different source than that found in SHEFA Province.

Among the 13 authors of the Current Biology paper are 4 Vanuatu citizens: Richard Matanik of the Lelema World Heritage Committee and the VKS, Richard Shing, the Director of the VKS, and Dr Stuart Bedford and Prof. Matthew Spriggs of the ANU and VKS.

Professor Spriggs, who provided the information for this report, will give more details of the research in an article in this Saturday’s Daily Post.

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