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article imageEaster Islanders also made voyages to the New World

By Karen Graham     Oct 24, 2014 in Science
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is one of the world's most remote inhabited islands. The closest continental land mass is Chile, 2,182 miles away. Yet, science has proven the Rapa Nui people met with early South Americans, well before Europeans came visiting.
Easter Island is well known for the 887 huge stone statues, called Moai, depicting deified ancestors that stand in watchful silence, looking out to sea. Researchers believe the island was first inhabited by Polynesians from the Gambier Islands, some 1,600 miles away, or the Marquesas Islands, 2,000 miles away. Radiocarbon dating seems to suggest the island was settled by 1200 CE.
Easter Island and the islands between it and South America.
Easter Island and the islands between it and South America.
It was always assumed the Easter Islanders were isolated, and had no contact with the outside world until the first Europeans visited in 1722. But this assertion has now been proven to be incorrect. Actually, the Rapa Nui had been visiting back and forth with Native South Americans in what we call the New World for several hundred years.
Based on a study conducted by researchers from Norway, Denmark and California, in the United States, and published in the journal Current Biology on Oct. 23, 2014, archaeological and genetic evidence now suggests the Polynesians of Easter Island and people living in South America had been interbreeding since the 1300s.
Researchers used genetic data obtained from 27 Easter Islanders in the study. While the study indicated a mostly Polynesian ancestry, genome-wide patterns did exist indicating a Native American and European admixture. The ancestry of eight unrelated Rapa Nui was further studied, and results showed support for an admixture of Native American genomes dating back to 1280–1495 and an European admixture dating to AD 1850–1895.
"We found evidence of gene flow between this population and Native American populations, suggesting an ancient ocean migration route between Polynesia and the Americas," says geneticist and study leader Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
Moai of Easter Island.
Moai of Easter Island.
Jantoniov | CC BY-SA 3.0
It is uncertain whether Native Americans traveled to Rapa Nui, or the Islanders traveled to South America. But researchers are more inclined to believe the Rapa Nui made the dangerous round-trip voyage to South America. They swapped goods to obtain chickens, sweet potatoes, and other food sources, and brought back Native American women with them.
The next obvious step in the research would be to see if any South Americans have Polynesian, Rapa Nui ancestry. "It seems most likely that they voyaged from Rapa Nui to South America and brought South Americans back to Rapa Nui and admixed with them," said Mark Stoneking, a geneticist with Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "So it will be interesting to see if in further studies any signal of Polynesian, Rapa Nui ancestry can be found in South Americans."
The admixing of South Americans and Rapa Nui dates back 19 to 23 generations. European admixtures only go back to the 19th century, say the researchers. The genetic makeup of the 5, 761 people living on Easter Island today is about 75 percent Polynesian, 10 percent Native American and 15 percent European ancestry.
Second Study shows Polynesians reached Brazil
A second study published in Thursday's Current Biology discussed the finding of two human skulls thought to be the remains of Brazil's indigenous Botocudo people. The Botocudo are known for the large wooden disks they wore in their lips and ears. But genetic evidence instead showed the two skulls belonged to two Polynesians, with no detectable Native American DNA.
"How the two Polynesian individuals belonging to the Botocudos came into Brazil is the million-dollar question," said University of Copenhagen geneticist Eske Willerslev of the Centre for GeoGenetics, who led the study on the Botocudos.
The finding lead researchers to believe the Polynesians made their way to the west coast of South America and journeyed inland, reaching Brazil, or they traveled around Tierra del Fuego and on up the east coast, according to Reuters.
More about Easter island, ancient polynesians, South American natives, long ocean voyages, genetic evidence
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