For centuries, researchers have puzzled over the origins of Pacific Islanders. Modern-day Polynesians living on one of many islands in the central and southern Pacific Ocean bare some resemblance to Asian populations. But between Polynesia and the Asian continent lie the islands of Melanesia – which includes Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea – and these residents have different observable characteristics (or phenotype).
What we do know is that just over 3,000 years ago, the Lapita culture became the first human settlement on Vanuatu. And now, analyses of skulls discovered in the oldest cemetery in the Pacific reveal a Lapita origin for Polynesians. The findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
A team led by Frédérique Valentin of Maison de l’Archéologie et de l’Ethnologie conducted morphological analyses of specimens uncovered at a 3,000-year-old cemetery located at Teouma on the south coast of Efate Island in Vanuatu.
The team found that the remains of early Lapita colonists from Teouma resemble present-day Polynesian and Asian populations. In contrast, the skeletal remains of later generations began to show characteristics typically associated with a Melanesian appearance.
Ultimately, migrants coming in from previously established parts of Melanesia later in the Lapita phase overtook the original Polynesian phenotype in eastern Melanesia – but not in Polynesia. Colonists of this region became isolated soon after they settled down. The findings suggest that Lapita settlers in Vanuatu quickly expanded into the Polynesian islands, becoming the main contributors to the genetics of Polynesians today.