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 B359: 255–264. The figure was adapted from Mellars P (2006) Science313: 796–800 and Goebel T (2007) Science315: 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..



Bellwood P, Chambers G, Ross M and Hung H‐C (2011) Are ‘cultures’ inherited? Multidisciplinary perspectives on the origins of Austronesian‐speaking peoples prior to 1000 BC. In: Roberts B and Vander Linden M (eds) Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability and Transmission, pp. 321–354. Springer: Berlin.

Benton M, Macartney‐Coxson D, Eccles D et al. (2012) Complete mitochondrial genome sequencing reveals novel haplotypes in a Polynesian population. PLoS One 7: e35026. 10.1371/journal.pone.0035026.

Cann RL and Lum JK (2004) Dispersal ghosts in Oceania. American Journal of Human Genetics 16: 440–451.

Chambers GK (2006) Polynesian genetics and Austronesian prehistory. In: Simanjuntak T, Pojoh I and Hisyam M (eds) Austronesian Diaspora and the Ethnogenesis of People in Indonesian Archipelago, pp. 299–319. Jakarta: Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

Chambers GK and Edinur HA (in press) Genetic relationships between Malays and Maori. Proceedings of the 3rd International Seminar: Malay, Maori and Pacific Language, Art and Culture, 23–24 March 2012, New Zealand.

Friedlaender JS (2007) Conclusion. In: Friedlaender JS (ed.) Genes, Language and Culture History in the Southwest Pacific, pp. 231–238. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friedlaender JS, Friedlaender FR, Reed FA et al. (2008) The genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. PLoS Genetics 1: e19.

Goff J, McFadgen BG, Chagué‐Goff C and Nichol SL (2012) Palaeotsunamis and their influence on Polynesian settlement. Holocene 22: 1067–1069.

Gongora J, Rawlence NJ, Mobegi VA et al. (2008) Indo‐European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105: 10308–10313.

Heyerdahl T (1952) American Indians in the Pacific. London: Allen & Unwin.

Hill C, Soares P, Mormina M et al. (2007) A mitochondrial stratigraphy for island southeast Asia. American Journal of Human Genetics 80: 29–43.

Hudjasov G, Kvisild T, Underhill PA et al. (2007) Revealing the prehistoric settlement of Australia by Y chromosome and mtDNA analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 104: 8726–8730.

Kayser M (2010) The human genetic history of Oceania: near and remote views of dispersal. Current Biology 20: R194–R201.

Kayser M, Lao O, Saar K et al. (2008) Genome‐wide analysis indicates more Asian than Melanesian ancestry of Polynesians. American Journal of Human Genetics 82: 194–198.

Kimura R, Ohashi J, Matsumura Y et al. (2008) Gene flow and natural selection in oceanic human populations inferred from genome‐wide SNP typing. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25: 1750–1761.

Pierson M, Matinez‐Arias R, Holland B et al. (2006) Deciphering past human population movements in Oceania: provably optimal trees of 127 mtDNA genomes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 23: 1966–1975.

Reich D, Patterson N, Kircher M et al. (2011) Denisova admixture and the first modern human dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. American Journal of Human Genetics 89: 516–528.

Stewart JR and Stringer CJ (2012) Human evolution out of Africa: the role of refugia and climate change. Science 335: 1317–1321.

Stringer C (2012) What makes a modern human. Nature 485: 33–35.

Storey AA, Ramirez JM, Quiroz D et al. (2007) Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre‐Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 104: 10335–10339.

Torroni A, Achilli A, Macaulay V, Richards M and Brandelt H‐J (2006) Harvesting the fruit of the human mtDNA tree. Trends in Genetics 22: 339–345.

Trejaut J, Kivisild T, Loo JH et al. (2005) Traces of archaic mitochondrial lineages persist in Austronesian‐speaking Formosan populations. PLoS Biology 3: e247.

Wilmshurst JM, Hunt T, Lipo CP et al. (2010) High precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108: 1815–1820.

Wollstein A, Lao O, Becker C et al. (2010) Demographic history of Oceania inferred from genome‐wide data. Current Biology 20: 1983–1992.

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:


Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

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]