Ancient DNA reveals cultural ‘explosion’ in the Pacific

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DNA analysis of ancient human remains has shed new light on an ‘explosion’ of mixed cultures and genetics in an island region in northern Australia known as Wallacea – a footprint that is still detectable among eastern Indonesians today.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) and the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, is the first to use this type of ancient DNA analysis to clarify, from an ancient genetic perspective, the significant maritime migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples outwards. from Taiwan, southern China and the Philippines in Wallacea. This major migration occurred between 3,000 and 3,500 years ago.

The findings reveal that these ancient migratory peoples mixed with the local indigenous populations of Wallacea and Papua, giving rise to a genetic imprint that is believed to have left a mark on many islands in the Asia-Pacific region.

Study co-author Professor Sue O’Connor said Austronesian-speaking peoples introduced domestic animals, crops and pottery to the Wallace Islands along with other cultural and social practices which have since transformed and evolved over thousands of years.

“This research shows for the first time what a tremendous genetic melting pot the islands of northern Australia are,” she said.

“It also gives us a unique insight into the amount of human mobility that has taken place in this vast maritime region that we wouldn’t get from archeology alone; the migration of Austronesian peoples across the Pacific is one of the greatest migrations in human history.

According to the study authors, many of the Austronesian peoples who put down roots in the Wallaces Islands also traveled throughout the Pacific, and may even have traveled as far as South America, although there are no evidence suggesting they settled there permanently, or if they settled in Australia.

“Our paper demonstrates that this intertwining of genetics and cultures in the Wallacea region occurred at least a millennium earlier than previously thought, and also that it continued through the Neolithic and Late Periods. the age of metals from the past 3,000 years,” Dr. Stuart Hawkins, who was also involved in the study, said.

“We also know that the arrival of the Austronesian-speaking peoples coincided with a period that saw great transformations in society not too different from the way society is transforming in Australia today.

“The presence of elaborate pottery, food production, rock art depictions, sun-oriented ideology, and advanced sailing ships after 3,000 years is quite dramatic for this time.”

It was previously believed that Austronesian peoples were the main migrants to settle Wallacea during this time. However, the DNA evidence identified in this study suggests that migrants from mainland Southeast Asia likely arrived in the southern Wallacea Islands before the Austronesians.

“This component of mainland Southeast Asia is a great mystery to me. I suspect we could be looking at small groups, perhaps early farmers, who have come a long way, left no archaeological record or linguistics along the way, but increased in population size after arrival,” said Emeritus Professor Peter Bellwood, who has led archaeological work in the Southeast Asian island for decades. declared.

Professor O’Connor said: “Although it is a surprise in some respects, there have long been hints in the archaeological evidence that there was an early movement of people from South East Asia. continental, such as finds of potsherds in archaeological sites that have not ‘corresponded well to what we know of ancient Austronesian pottery.

The researchers extracted and analyzed the DNA of 16 different ancient individuals from several islands in the Wallacea region, including the island of Pantar in Indonesia.

Some of the unearthed human remains, such as those collected in the northern Moluccas Islands by Professor Emeritus Bellwood, were unearthed in the 1990s. However, it was only more recently that DNA could be properly extracted from the remains thanks to significant scientific advances in DNA examination techniques.

This work is published in the journal Nature ecology and evolution.

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