Researchers Trace the Pacific Migration Route Using Bacteria and Language

By Eliza Strickland | January 23, 2009 10:16 am

Pacific migration 2Two groups of researchers seem to have solved the mystery of how and when the first human settlers spread out through the Pacific Islands. One group studied the evolution of a stomach bacteria while the other examined the evolution of language, but both came up with remarkably congruous results. The evolutionary trajectory implied by words and bugs begins with an initial migration from Taiwan 5,000 years ago, with a first wave of people spreading to the Philippines and a second to western Polynesia [Wired News].

In the bacterial study, researchers took stomach samples from people native to Taiwan, Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia and New Guinea. They measured genetic variation in Helicobacter pylori, a common gut microbe that traveled with humans when they first left Africa more than 60,000 years ago…. They found that the [bacteria] from people’s guts in Polynesia and Melanesia–islands stretching from New Caledonia all the way to Samoa–were genetically similar to the samples from aboriginal people in Taiwan. What’s more, the Taiwanese bacteria had more genetic diversity than other populations [The Scientist]. Because genetic mutations accumulate over time, these results indicate that the early Taiwanese people were the ancestors of the other groups that split off over the centuries.

In the second of the two papers, both of which were published in Science [subscription required], researchers examined the evolution of the languages used by Pacific people. The Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, including 1,200 languages spread across the Pacific region, Professor Russell Gray said. “By studying the basic vocabulary from these languages, such as words for animals, simple verbs, colours and numbers, we can trace how these languages evolved,” Gray said [AFP].

The researchers found that the language group arose around 5,200 years ago in Taiwan. By tracing the subsequent evolution within the language family, they determined that the Austronesian people paused at least a thousand years before moving into the Philippines; they then paused there before moving into Polynesia. The last places to be settled were far-flung islands such as Hawaii and Easter Island, as well as New Zealand (researchers believe the Maori people got there only 700 or 800 years ago). Research fellow Simon Greenhill said the expansion could be linked to new technology, such as better canoes, and social techniques. “Using these new technologies the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever,” he said [Sydney Morning Herald].

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  • Lily wen

    I am the indigenous of Taiwan my tribe is Rukai, i do think we have so many comman in the language with the pacific people, i just back from Samoa, i find out we do have close relationship, like breasts they said Su su, in my rukai languages we said Su su too.i really think we are the family in long time ago.

  • Jinn

    That’s the word we use for breasts too here in the Philippines (well, at least the “tagalogs” do. i don’t know about the other ethnic groups).

  • Danee HAZAMA

    I live in Polynesia and have done ethnographic research 2 years in Taiwan with the indigenous peoples there. I have found various cultural similarities and big differences between them and the peoples of the Pacific.

  • Angikinui Francis

    a nutshell sweep of the global migration trend that branched off into asia and into the pacific – with a total assumption of course of human beginnings in africa. fine and well i suppose.
    the predominance of christian (including mormon) doctrines in the pacific has spread an understanding of the peopling of the pacific as an east-west phenomenon – from south america into the pacific. and this goes down well with some cultish focus on the spread of egyptians or israelites thru the americas into the pacific. this religious-based belief, coupled with the european early concentration in eastern polynesia (triangle polynesia) has consolidated this understanding into even the folklore level of cultural groups in the pacific.
    great to see scientific findings becoming more definite and clear-cut, although i suspect that cultural developments (and including the social impacts on baterial evolve – metamorphosis) may still be quite open to varrying directions of growth and transferring.
    these kinds of findings too can be linked with the conclusions over the lapita pottery culture spread (with specific attention to the second wave of austranesian asia-pacific migration). this lapita pottery culture spread is specifically linked to the early polynesian spread – sometimes referred to as proto-polynesian people and culture.

  • Michael

    I just came back from Hawaii Polynesian Cultural Center (operated by Mormon BYU) few weeks ago, and surprisingly, our tour guide from the center (a student at BYU there and also a Taiwanese herself) explained the spread of Polynesian people came from East Asia but failed to mention Taiwan at all in the context of origin of Polynesian people. So either she is not properly informed or not allowed to mention Taiwan at all.


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