8 Jun 2021

Early Polynesians 'mingled' through Asia before migration - study

4:50 pm on 8 June 2021

The first Polynesians are likely to have arrived in the South Pacific from a range of routes through island Southeast Asia, new research has found.

Vaka Moana on its voyage to Hawaii, Auckland and Tahiti in 2011.

Vaka Moana on its voyage to Hawaii, Auckland and Tahiti in 2011. Photo: Okeanos Foundation / Rui Camilo

A University of Auckland study analysed the carbon-dates on ceramics dating back to the Neolithic period (10,000 to 4,500 BCE), concluding that early Polynesian populations "mixed and mingled" as they moved closer to the Pacific.

Archaeologist Associate Professor Ethan Cochrane

Archaeologist Associate Professor Ethan Cochrane Photo: The University of Auckland

"We looked at almost 200 archaeological assemblages and their dates, we used new data analysis techniques to look at this whole suite of data and we're able to determine that actually neither of these hypotheses are correct," Cochrane said.

"It looks as if the earliest that are highly related to Polynesians moved into island Southeast Asia around five to eight thousand years ago, but from the west and from the north, mixed around a lot in Asia and then maybe several groups made it out into the Pacific."

"The story is not one of a single migration of people from Taiwan out into Polynesia, but rather lots of populations mixing and moving around and then some coming out into the islands."

However, he said this information merges with traditional understandings of Pacific migration rather than replaces it entirely.

"As we generate more accurate and precise dates, we can begin to explore the implications of this new way of thinking about early human movement around the Earth, which has shaped continuous variation in past populations and might also change how contemporary Polynesian people think about their own origins."

Dr Cochrane says said period involves the most mixing of populations around the region in entire human pre-history.

"Our data supports the idea that people moved in all directions at a range of times, as there are pieces of this earliest pottery from exactly the same era deposited in both western Borneo and the northern Philippines, for example, which couldn't be the case if the existing theories are correct."

The study, the first quantitative assessment of radiocarbon chronologies for initial pottery in Island Southeast Asia supports multi-directional Neolithic dispersal, has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Dr Cochrane now plans to present his research to Pasifika communities.