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25 January 2009
Pacific people spread from Taiwan 5,200 years ago

New research into language evolution suggests most Pacific populations originated in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Scientists at The University of Auckland have used sospisticated computer analyses on vocabulary from 400 Austronesian languages to uncover how the Pacific was settled.
     "The Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, with 1200 languages spread across the Pacific," says Professor Russell Gray of the Department of Psychology. "The settlement of the Pacific is one of the most remarkable prehistoric human population expansions. By studying the basic vocabulary from these languages we can trace how these languages evolved. The relationships between these languages give us a detailed history of Pacific settlement."
     "Our results use cutting-edge computational methods derived from evolutionary biology on a large database of language data," says Dr Alexei Drummond of the Department of Computer Science. "By combining biological methods and linguistic data we are able to investigate big-picture questions about human origins".
     The results, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, show how the settlement of the Pacific proceeded in a series of expansion pulses and settlement pauses. The Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Before entering the Philippines, they paused for around a thousand years, and then spread rapidly across the 7,000km from the Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for another thousand years, before finally spreading further into Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.
     "We can link these expansion pulses to the development of new technology, such as better canoes and social techniques to deal with the great distances between islands in Polynesia," says Research Fellow Simon Greenhill. "Using these new technologies the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever. This suggests that technological advances have played a major role in the spread of people throughout the world."
     Another study further supports this theory. The researchers, including gastroenterologists at Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, sampled the bacterial parasite Helicobacter pylori in the stomachs of present-day aborigines in the Pacific. Only humans carry the H. pylori bacterium, so it travels with people as they migrate. The bacteria itself mutates more rapidly than human DNA. The novel research approach allowed scientists to compare the bacteria in the stomachs of aborigines across the Pacific to gain an understanding of when they came to the islands and from where.
     "It's most interesting to me that the people in Polynesia came from Taiwan about 5,000 years ago," said Dr. David Graham, a professor at Baylor and a study co-author. The results published in Science confirm previous research that used archaeology and human DNA testing.
     Prior to the new study, there were competing theories about how the Pacific, beginning with the Philippines and extending to West Polynesia, was colonized. Archaeological evidence suggests that farming communities existed on Taiwan as early as about 5,000 years ago. It also suggests the migrations were carried out with the intent to colonize, rather than just explore.
     These new studies seems to clearly tell anthropologists when the first migrations occurred and from where, wrote University of Cambridge archaeologist Colin Renfrew in a Science perspective on the research. Left unanswered is why humans undertook such heroic sea voyages at a time when, halfway around the world, Egyptians were just beginning to learn how to sail. "Why did these people get driven out of Taiwan? Maybe there weren't enough resources where they were living," said Rebecca Storey, a University of Houston anthropologist. "It's something we just don't know right now."

Source: Houston Chronicle, EurekAlert! (22 January 2009)

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