Using DNA to study human migrations a winner

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 18 October 2018

Using DNA to understand one of the greatest human migration events in history has earned Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a biological anthropologist at the University of Otago, the 2018 Mason Durie Medal for social science.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, anthropologist at the University of Otago.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, anthropologist at the University of Otago. Photo: Mark Coote / University of Otago

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Prof Matisoo-Smith uses DNA to understand human migrations, especially the great migration of Polynesians across the Pacific.

She says she began working with DNA from animals such as kiore, or Pacific rat, which people took with them as they migrated.

Once she had gained the trust of local people, she began collaborating with Polynesian communities across the Pacific, and with iwi in New Zealand.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith dissecting a rat on Emirau Island, Papua New Guinea.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith has looked at the DNA of animals such as rats, which moved with people across the Pacific. Here Lisa is dissecting a rat on Emirau Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo: University of Otago

The parallel genetic histories of humans as well as kiore, chickens and pigs showed that human migration into the Pacific began in South-East Asia and moved in waves across the Pacific. New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled, about 750 years ago.

Prof Matisoo-Smith has worked closely with Rangitane o Wairau iwi at Wairau Bar, near Blenheim, where some of the first Polynesians in New Zealand settled about 700 years ago.

We were able to obtain the first complete mitochondrial genomes from the first New Zealanders, and that was pretty exciting,” she says.

“But we were able to combine it and sample Rangitane members today and look at their mitochondrial DNA, and then provide the genetic connection between the population of Rangitane today and their tipuna from Wairau Bar.”

In her Africa to Aotearoa project, Prof Matisoo-Smith collected DNA from more than 2000 people in diverse communities across New Zealand.

“This has been a very exciting project,” she says, “which has included both interesting science and community engagement.”

What we found was that all of the major mitochondrial lineages that exist, all of the branches of the human family tree … are found here in Aotearoa.”

Prof Matisoo-Smith says she is increasingly looking at the implications of the genetic history of Pacific peoples on issues they are facing today, such as health.

“We’re integrating an evolutionary and anthropological approach to understanding human health.”

A history of Our Changing World interviews

Prof Matisoo-Smith has appeared on Our Changing World on a number of occasions, talking her research.

In 2009, she spoke about ‘Tracing the great Pacific migration.’

In 2012, she discussed the ‘Genetic map of the first settlers.’

On 2014, she featured in several stories about her ‘Africa to Aotearoa project’, which included a visit to a Gisborne iwi to collect DNA for National Geographic’s Genographic Project.

Later in 2014, we heard about the first results of ‘New Zealanders’ ancient genetic ancestry’, and followed this up in 2016 with a report on how super-diverse New Zealand’s genetic legacy is.

And in 2016, we visited Wairau Bar, to hear about one of the first settlement sites in New Zealand.