Lapita people are ancestors to all Ni-Vanuatu, finds latest DNA study

Our ancestors: a Lapita skeleton buried with three other skulls at Teouma

Ol bubu blong yumi: a Lapita skeleton buried with three other skulls at Teouma, Efate

A major academic paper has been published online in Nature, the top scientific journal in the world, which solves many questions of the origins of Pacific peoples, including the people of Vanuatu.

The study, titled ‘Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific‘ (paywall), is based on a revolutionary study of ancient DNA from the Lapita skeletons from Teouma found during the 2004 to 2010 archaeological dig there. There are 31 authors to the paper, led by Pontus Skoglund of Harvard University.

It turns out the foundation population of Vanuatu probably came directly from Taiwan or the northern Philippines,  bypassing New Guinea and the Solomon Islands without mixing with the Australo-Papuan people already living there.

All Ni-Vanuatu descend from these first migrants and their later intermarriage with mixed Asian-Papuan groups who came down from the New Guinea and Solomon Islands. There are Asian Lapita genes in every Ni-Vanuatu, the mark of their earliest ancestors.

The original archaeological research carried out at Teouma was in response to damage to the site from soil quarrying for the prawn farm. The bulldozers had revealed skeletons and broken Lapita pots dating to almost 3,000 years ago.

This find was brought to the attention of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS) early in 2004. A joint project was begun at Teouma with the Australian National University, directed by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford, honorary curators of archaeology at the VKS and residents of Vanuatu. They are two of the 31 authors of the Nature paper and are the lead archaeologists involved in the study.

Archaeologists at work at  the Teouma dig site, source of three of the Lapita skeletons used in this groundbreaking study

Archaeologists at work at the Teouma dig site, source of three of the Lapita skeletons used in this groundbreaking study

As Professor Spriggs recalls, “from the start we were hoping to be able to get genetic material (DNA) from the bones to find out who the Lapita people were. Silas Alben, the VKS fieldworker from Eratap had asked us early on: ‘Are these our ancestors or are they somebody else?’ We had three attempts over the years, working with laboratories in the US, New Zealand and Australia, but they couldn’t find any DNA left in the bones.”

Last year, after the Teouma project had long since officially ended, VKS was approached by a team from University College Dublin in Ireland and Harvard University Medical School in the US and asked to provide samples for another attempt. Over the years since the Teouma discovery, DNA recovery techniques had improved and it was hoped ancient DNA could at last be found in the bones.

Out of four Teouma bone samples sent to the genetics researchers, three yielded ancient DNA, allowing the Lapita genes to finally be revealed for the first time.

The results were startling. A comparison with the full genetic profiles of 778 living Asian and Pacific people revealed that the closest genetically to the early Lapita people of Teouma were Taiwanese aboriginals and the Kankanaey, a tribe found on northern Luzon in the Philippines.

But even they were not exactly like the Lapita people – they’d had 3,000 years or more to mix with other groups in the region. So the Lapita people of Teouma were a unique group of Asians who had moved rapidly through Island Southeast Asia and past New Guinea and the Solomons until they reached Vanuatu.

As Dr Stuart Bedford notes, “at that time people had been living in the islands of Southeast Asia, New Guinea and the Solomons for about forty to fifty thousand years. They were what biologists call ‘Australo-Papuans’, the ancestors of indigenous Australians and many people in New Guinea today. The Asian Lapita people seem to have largely avoided them, moving through to Vanuatu. Although, as we know, the new migrants also established settlements along the route in places such as New Britain and New Ireland off New Guinea. There are lots of Lapita sites there too, as well as in Vanuatu.”

In fact, building on earlier studies of modern peoples in the region it is now clear that all Pacific Islanders in Melanesia and Polynesia today are a mixture of these two great populations – the Papuans and the incoming Asian Lapita population.

The paper in Nature also includes a late Lapita sample from Tonga, from which another genetics team at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, also extracted ancient DNA. The result was the same as that from Teouma – the first Lapita people to reach Tonga were again Asian.

As Professor Spriggs says, “this means that the Papuan genes found in all people in places such as Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Polynesia represent later movements of people down from the New Guinea or Solomons area. They seem to have already mixed there with the Lapita settlers before they moved down. They intermarried with the original Lapita Asians to produce the Ni-Vanuatu, Kanaks, Fijians and Polynesians of today.”

Professor Spriggs is also quick to point out that “this does not mean that Asian people got here first and Ni-Vanuatu came later. No! These first Asian Lapita people are the original ancestors of all Ni-Vanuatu. Over 3,000 years since they arrived, they welcomed more immigrants who had a more Papuan genetic background, and they married with them. And that is why Ni-Vanuatu today look less Asian than they did thousands of years ago when they first arrived.”

It used to be believed that Polynesians were the fairly direct representatives of this Asian Lapita group, but it is now clear that all Polynesians too have at least a 26% contribution from Papuan genes. In the Melanesian islands, such as in Vanuatu, the Papuan contribution is around 50% or more. So the only difference between ‘Polynesians’ and ‘Melanesians’ is in the differing percentage of Papuan and Asian genes.

In the more isolated parts of the New Guinea interior such as in the New Guinea Highlands, the Papuan genetic component is above 90% and the Asian contribution is much less significant.

Many questions remain. Dr Bedford thinks that the more mixed Papuan-Asian migrants quickly followed the original Lapita populations into Vanuatu: “the archaeological evidence in that even by the end of the Lapita period in Vanuatu at about 2,700 to 2,500 years ago, the more mixed Papuan-Asian people were already coming down to Vanuatu following the Lapita trail. At that time there wouldn’t have been many people in Vanuatu, perhaps just a few hundred. So the new migrants quickly changed the genetic profile of Ni-Vanuatu towards what it is today.”

“Fiji may have been different. The second wave of migrants may have reached there a bit later, and later still to Tonga. We know they have to have been in places like Tonga and Samoa before 1,000 years ago, however.”

Dr Bedford explains: “this is because there was a major push into Eastern Polynesia at that time, a thousand years ago. People reached places such as Tahiti, Hawaii and soon afterwards got to New Zealand to become the Maori. All of these groups carry those Papuan genes as well as the original Asian Lapita component, so they were present in the population in Western Polynesia before they started their voyages even further out into the Pacific.”

Lazare Asal, Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, said: “These results are very exciting. They open up a whole new idea of the origins of Pacific peoples. It is good to see that research by the VKS and our colleagues overseas has led to this major scientific advance based very largely on evidence from Vanuatu.”

Professor Spriggs concludes: “scientists have known for years that there isn’t really such a population as ‘Melanesians’, the variability within the region is so vast. The only difference between ‘Melanesians’ and ‘Polynesians’ is just in what percentage of Papuan versus Lapita Asian genes they have. Perhaps we should just stop using these kinds of labels like ‘Polynesian’ and ‘Melanesian’ except for labelling geographic regions, and adopt a Pacific-wide terminology. How about everyone just being Pasifika people?”

He adds: “twelve years ago, Silas Alben of Eratap asked us at the Teouma dig, ‘Are these our ancestors?’ We can now finally answer him and say ‘Yes, they most certainly are’, and in fact they and people like them who lived at other Lapita sites in Vanuatu at the same time are the original ancestors of each and every Ni-Vanuatu. People up north in New Guinea then must have heard how great Vanuatu was and came down and joined them. The result is the people of Vanuatu today.”


2 Comments on “Lapita people are ancestors to all Ni-Vanuatu, finds latest DNA study”

  1. Nan says:

    I find it funny how Melanesians are quickly trying to claim that they are all descendants of these Asian Lapita people. What is clear is that the Lapita people are the ancestors of the Polynesians. So many studies show that only a small percentage of Melanesians actually have the genetic markers denoting descendancy from these ancients.


    • dailyvanuatu says:

      You’re either missing the point, Nan, or you are making some kind of argument for Polynesian superiority, which is both racist and ignorant. The population referenced in this study represent only one wave of migration, and given the fact that the Lapita are the ancestors of many Melanesians, including all ni-Vanuatu, Solomon Islanders and many of the coastal people of PNG, it is clear that some of them also stuck around. Migration in the Pacific has never been one-way; the Lapita, and later western Polynesians, intermarried and traded with Melanesians for centuries (that’s how the Polynesians got kava, which was first domesticated in the islands we call Vanuatu today)