Indigenous | Health

Stanford experts find early south American DNA in Polynesian groups

Stanford University experts have found conclusive evidence showing traces of southern American ancestry in the DNA of some Polynesians, which suggests an encounter between ancient islanders and South America hundreds of years ago.

Lead researcher Alexander Ioannidis says a single contact event occurred in 1200 AD, during the middle ages of Europe.

"We found small amounts of southern American DNA in various Polynesian participants in Marquesas, Mangareva, Mataeva, and Rapa Nui," Stanford researcher Alexander Ioannidis told Tapatahi.

The genetic study consisted of analysing genome-wide variation in individuals from islands within Polynesia for signs of Native American DNA.

This included analysing 807 participants from 17 of Polynesia’s islands, and 15 Pacific coast Native American groups.

"We developed some computational methods to determine where this contact occurred - but we can't say who was in the boat," Ioannidis told Tapatahi.

He says it was likely it was the Polynesians, based on archaeological evidence which suggests they were voyaging at the time.

Kumara connection

The Native American group was successfully identified as being from Columbian Ecuador, which is where it is believed Māori retrieved the ‘sweet potato’ known as kumara.

“This is the same word they use along the coast of Ecuador - so that explains one mystery.”

The analyses suggested that the single contact event occurred before the settlement of Rapa Nui.

“I think it’s incredible and it really shows the skills of the navigators at the time,” he says. “I mean they were finding the most distant islands - so why not to finding a continent like South America.”

Ioannidis says his interest in this particular study stemmed from the focus on human health and being inclusive of all ethnicities when conducting health studies.

“I’m involved in Covid-19 genetic research but looking to expand it to all communities and not just European.”