During our visit to Vanuatu last month we stayed a couple of kilometres from the estuary of the Teouma, the longest and widest river on Efate Island. In 2003 developers unleashed some bulldozers near the river's mouth, and unearthed several huge pots adorned with the complicatedly beautiful abstract patterns beloved of the remote Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians. Inside the pots were skulls. Archaeologists intervened, and a large, intricately organised Lapita cemetery emerged from the earth. Supervisors from Vanuatu's fabled Cultural Centre made sure that the dead were treated respectfully, and reinterred carefully.
Carbon dating has shown that Teouma is older than any other archaeological site in Vanuatu. The archipelago's first settlers seem not to have been the Melanesian ancestors of today's ni-Vanuatu, but the distant relatives of Tongans and Samoans and Maori.
Now scientists have been able to extract DNA from the bones at Teouma and from one ancient burial site in Tonga, and discover that the pioneers of Polynesia had not mixed their genes with Papuans or any other Melanesian people, but had rather come straight into the Pacific from Southeast Asia (there was mixing later, as various societies traded and intermarried).
The DNA results, which have been reported in the Guardian as well as various southern hemisphere newspapers, have many implications for the study of Pacific history. They suggest that Te Rangi Hiroa might have been right, when he argued that there was relatively little Melanesian influence on archaic Polynesian culture; they seem to validate Patrick Vinton Kirch's theory that many features of Polynesia's dozens of societies can be traced back to a single, fairly homogenous 'ancestral culture'.
The DNA results may also eventually help doctors treat diabetes and other diseases that are particularly prevalent amongst Polynesians.
I'm hoping that the data from Teouma helps to further discredit the idea, promoted by Thor Heyerdahl, the Mormon church, and various white nationalists in New Zealand, that Polynesians migrated into the Pacific from the Americas.
[Poste by Scott Hamilton]