Genetics and the Origins of the Polynesians


Anatomically modern humans first arose in Africa. They rapidly spread out across the world with their earliest dispersers reaching as far as Australasia 40 000–60 000 years before present (ybp). Migration routes have been traced pretty thoroughly by molecular methods, but many controversies still remain. Recently debate has been focused on the relative importance of competing alternate pathways and the extent of interaction with other ancient peoples: Neanderthals and Denisovans. The origin of the Polynesian people who settled in Remote Oceania is a particularly long‐standing mystery. Surveys of genetic variation in these populations have helped to distinguish between competing theories arising from anthropology and linguistics. The genetic data show how maternal and paternal lineages combined approximately 3000 ybp giving rise to a new people who spoke Austronesian languages and developed a sophisticated technology for oceanic voyaging.

Key Concepts:

  • Anatomically modern humans came from Africa and dispersed widely in a relatively short time.

  • Dispersal patterns plus the timing and extent of gene flow from ancient people have all become controversial topics in recent years.

  • Pacific Island populations must be described in terms of culture and ancestry as well as their geographic location.

  • Genetic surveys are powerful tools for testing hypotheses about the migration histories of human populations.

  • Molecular markers can inform both pattern (origins and pathways) and process (hybridisation, gene flow, founder effects, etc.) in human evolution.

  • Maternal and paternal markers reveal different ancestors for Pacific people: Austronesian and Papuan, respectively.

  • Almost all preceding ‘Fast Train’ and ‘Slow Boat’ type models are captured as elements of an extended ‘Synthetic Total Evidence Model’.

  • Genetic studies of Pacific plants and animals support the emergent view from human genes, language and culture.

  • In any and all causal explanations of human history, known process elements must fully account for observed patterns.

Keywords: polynesians; remote oceania; mitochondrial DNA; Y‐chromosome; genetic bottleneck

Figure 1.

Possible migration routes taken by ancient humans starting from Africa (purple arrows) people characterised by mtDNA haplogroups l1–3 spread out and gave rise to 3 lineages: European (green arrows) with haplogroups H, I, J, U and X; Central Asian (pink arrows) with haplogroups N and M giving rise to A–D and South Asian where N and M gave rise to P and Q – after Forster P (2004) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B 359: 255–264. The figure was adapted from Mellars P (2006) Science 313: 796–800 and Goebel T (2007) Science 315: 194–196. Significant archaeological sites mentioned in these articles are shown as red dots.

Figure 2.

Geographic and linguistic divisions of the Pacific Ocean: (a) the language map and (b) the language tree. Reproduced with permission from Bellwood P, Australian National University.

Figure 3.

Chronological dispersal of Austronesian people across the Pacific. Reproduced with permission from Bellwood P, Australian National University.

Figure 4.

This is an evolutionary tree constructed by the Neighbour Joining Method using published values for 687 microsatellites from the Human Genome Diversity Project and Centre d' Etudes Polymorphismes Humaine databases. These were reduced to FST distances for calculation of the tree. The insert bar shows a STRUCTURE analysis at K+6 populations and individual assignments are illustrated by colour coding as in the main diagram. Reproduced with permission from Friedlaender et al. .



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Further Reading

Bellwood P and Renfrew C (2002) Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Brandelt H‐J, Macauley V and Richards M (2006) Human Mitochondrial DNA and the Evolution of Homo sapiens. Berlin: Springer.

Cameron DW and Groves CP (2004) Bones, Stones and Molecules. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Cavalli‐Sforza LL (2000) Genes, People and Languages. New York: North Point Press.

Friedlaender JS (2007) Genes, Language and Culture History in the Southwest Pacific. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hill A and Serjeantson S (1989) Colonisation of the Pacific: A Genetic Trail. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Howe KR (2003) The Quest for Origins. Auckland: Penguin Books.

Jobling M, Hurles M and Tyler‐Smith C (2004) Human Evolutionary Genetics: Origins, Peoples, and Disease. New York: Garland.

Simanjuntak T, Pojoh I and Hisyam M (2006) Austronesian Diaspora and the Ethnogenesis of People in Indonesian Archipelago. Jakarta: Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

Stringer C (2012) How we came to be the only humans on Earth. New York: Time Books.

Web Links


Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand:

The Genographic Project:


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How to Cite close
Chambers, Geoffrey K(Jan 2013) Genetics and the Origins of the Polynesians. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020808.pub2]