New DNA Evidence Sheds Light on Easter Island Mysteries

Fehren-Schmitz et al found no Native American admixture in pre and post European-contact Rapanui. Image credit Bjørn Christian Tørrissen  CC BY-SA 3.0

New DNA Evidence Sheds Light on Easter Island Mysteries

Almost 2000 kilometers from its nearest neighbor in the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, seems an unlikely crossroads for the world's cultures.

Mystery and intrigue surrounds the life and times of people who created the famous Moai statues on Rapa Nui off the coast of Chile - and a new study suggests they were more isolated than previously thought.

Dating suggested three of these individuals lived between 1445 and 1624 AD - before European contact - while the other two were dated between 1815 and 1945; well after European arrival on the island. "We were surprised that we didn't find any Native American admixture in our ancient Rapanui specimens".

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"We can reject the hypothesis that any of these individuals had substantial Native American ancestry", Fehren-Schmitz said. About 8% of their DNA was inherited from Native American ancestors, appearing in their genomes in short bursts rather than long stretches. Signs pointed towards mixing between the two populations many generations before any European set foot on the island.

Professor Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, said the original claim of native American ancestry on Rapa Nui had always been contentious, especially given the only archaeological evidence was the sweet potato crop.

The new findings, however, dispell this theory. After all, the initial study sampled 28 individuals while this time only five individuals were analyzed. So the big questions remain: Where and when did these groups interact to change the genetic signature of Easter Islanders? "We know the island's modern populations have some Native American ancestry, and now we know that early inhabitants did not".

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"This study highlights the value of ancient DNA to test hypotheses about past population dynamics", said Fehren-Schmitz. On the often surprising gaps between scientific models and what actually happened in the past, she and Fehren-Schmitz agree: "When it comes to human behavior and human history, there's so much more complexity to it", he says. Some of the colonial slave traders who targeted Rapa Nui were from Peru, where European and Native American genes had mixed since the 16th century. Slavery and mass deportation soon followed. So after Polynesian Rapanui mixed with the continental people, the genetic analysis could have fooled us that the Native American genome was present on the island long before Europeans made contact. In their new study, Fehren-Schmitz and colleagues wanted to find out what DNA from ancient Rapanui samples had to say on the matter. The goal is to develop a more detailed picture of the populations that lived within each of these regions and potential interactions among them.

"What our study tells us is that we have to dig deeper and we have to do that jointly as geneticists and archaeologists and anthropologists, to see if there is any other kind of traces that we can work with that give us a better idea of what might have happened".

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