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First Pacific settlers Asian, says study

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 3/10/2016

New research into the DNA from the earliest ancestors of Maori has concluded that the first Pacific settlers were from Asian farming groups.

Reseach co-author Professor Murray Cox, from Massey University, says the the revelations may hold the key to future health improvements for Maori and Pasifika populations.

The study, published in Nature, examined 3000-year-old skeletal remains from the first people to settle in Vanuatu and Tonga.

It says the research showed that ancient settlers had little to no Papuan ancestry, proving that the first people to reach Oceania were from Asian farming groups, with later movements bringing Papuan genes into the region.

Before this work, no ancient genomic DNA had been obtained from any tropical region, including the Pacific.

This resulted in two opposing scenarios to explain why Maori and Pasifika have Papuan and Asian ancestry.

The other scenario was that farming groups moving out of Asia mixed with Papuans near New Guinea and created a mixed group with both ancestries, and the mixed group settling in the Pacific.

Prof Cox says the study provides the first basic picture of the genomic makeup of Pacific Islanders.

"We knew that they had a mixture of both Asian and Papuan ancestry, but had no idea how this came about or when," he said.

"Knowing this is important, because some of the genetic variations caused by this population mixing will likely be linked to health outcomes, perhaps explaining why health issues like obesity and diabetes are such challenges for Pacific peoples today."

He said that understanding this DNA could ultimately provide new ideas for health treatments.

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