Did early Easter Islanders sail to South America before Europeans?

Nearly 2000 kilometers from its nearest neighbor in the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, seems an unlikely crossroads for the world’s cultures. But in recent years, some scientists have argued that the island’s first inhabitants—Polynesians who settled there by 1200 C.E.—may have sailed all the way to South America and back, making contact with Native Americans long before Europeans. Now, DNA from people who lived on Rapa Nui before European contact suggests that may not be the case, throwing a wrench into one of the biggest remaining mysteries about human migration.

The result shocked Lars Fehren-Schmitz, a biological anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the study. When he sequenced genomes from the rib bones of five individuals who lived on Rapa Nui before and after European contact, he expected to find a population with mixed Polynesian and Native American ancestry. Polynesian voyages to and from South America, though thousands of kilometers, “just seem to be plausible,” he says, and archaeological evidence shows that the sweet potato, domesticated 8000 years ago in Peru, had spread to Polynesian islands as early as 1000 C.E. But the DNA of the individuals, who lived between the 13th and 19th centuries, showed no signs of Native American ancestry, Fehren-Schmitz and his colleagues write today in Current Biology.

This contradicts a 2014 study, also published in Current Biology, that analyzed the genomes of 27 modern Rapanui who, like most people who live on the island today, have Polynesian, European, and Native American ancestry. About 8% of their DNA was inherited from Native American ancestors, appearing in their genomes in short bursts rather than long stretches. Because the contribution of each group’s DNA becomes more fragmented over time, that’s a strong signal of a long-ago meeting between different populations. Based on the length of the Native American DNA sequences, the researchers concluded that the Rapanui’s Polynesian and Native American ancestors must have met at least 19 generations ago, between 1280 C.E. and 1495 C.E.—long before Europeans arrived on the island in 1722 C.E.

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