First people on Vanuatu and Tonga from Taiwan

The first inhabitants of Vanuatu and Tonga came from East Asia and not from other parts of the Pacific as previously thought, a new DNA study has shown.

What is more, they arrived as relatively recently as 3,000 years ago only mingling with Melanesians from Papua and other places at lest 500 years later.

The study involved four skeletons – three from Vanuatu and one from Tonga – found by archaeologists from the Australian National University in Canberra.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School, University College Dublin, and the Max Planck institute for the Science of Human History helped with the DNA analysis.

The remains were of farmers from the Lapita culture, known for red pottery, obsidian tools and shell ornaments.

The DNA analysis was compared with those of nearly 800 people from 83 populations living in East Asia and Oceania today.

“The people of Vanuatu today are descended from Asia first of all,” ANU researcher Matthew Spriggs noted in a media release.

“Their original base population is Asian. They were straight out of Taiwan and perhaps the northern Philippines.”

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A map showing the western Pacific. The Lapita people bypassed habited islands for the then-uninhabited ones of what are now Vanuatu and Tonga.
pop_jop / Getty Images

He 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.”

Ancient DNA of a sample from a Tongan cemetery confirmed that the same group of people became the first inhabitants of Tonga slightly later.

Details of the scientists’ findings were published in the journal Nature.

The study lays to rest a debate that has raged for centuries over the origins of the Lapita people.

“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,” said co-author Ron Pinhasi at University College Dublin.

“The unexpected results about Oceanian history highlight the power of ancient DNA to overthrow established models of the human past.”

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