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The Origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s First People

The origins of Vanuatu and Tonga’s first inhabitants has been revealed by the first major study of ancient DNA from the Pacific Islands.

The study, published in Nature (http://tinyurl.com/j79pr7t), found that Vanuatu’s first people arrived 3000 years ago from Taiwan and the northern Philippines, and not from the neighbouring Australo-Papuan populations of Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that had been in the region for between 40,000 and 50,000 years.

Prof Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology said the discovery was confirmed after DNA analyses were carried out on three skeletal samples excavated from the oldest known cemetery of the Pacific Island Lapita culture near Port Vila in Vanuatu.

“The people of Vanuatu today are descended from Asia first of all. Their original base population is Asian. They were straight out of Taiwan and perhaps the northern Philippines,” Spriggs said. “They travelled past places where people were already living, but when they got to Vanuatu there was nobody there. These are the first people.

“Only some time later did they intermarry with Papuan peoples to produce the genetic mix we see today in Vanuatu, and indeed across the Pacific. Today all Pacific Islanders are a mixture of these Asian and Papuan populations. The differences are simply in the percentages.”

Ancient DNA of a sample from a Tongan cemetery confirmed that the same group of people became the first inhabitants of Tonga only slightly later. “We know this because testing conducted by two different laboratories in the United States and Germany confirm that the samples are of the same people,” he said.

“This is the first genome-wide data on prehistoric humans from the hot tropics, and was made possible by improved methods for preparing skeletal remains,” says senior author Dr Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin.

“A particularly striking finding is the different ancestry observed on the X chromosome, which is inherited mainly from females,” said lead author Dr Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School and Stockholm University. “This reveals that the vast majority of the ancestry from these open water pioneers that survives today is derived from females, showing how DNA information can provide insights into cultural processes in ancient societies.”