Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hawaiians from Taiwan?

I vaguely remember hearing something awhile ago about how recent research had suggested that Polynesians may have originally come from Taiwan. I was telling a friend about it today, and in trying to find support for my claim, I came across this Economist article. I hadn't seen it before, but it looks like it may have been the primary source for whatever I had seen/heard:

Maori legend has it that Polynesians originated from a place called "Hawaiki". Where Hawaiki was located is a mystery. But the toings and froings of the Polynesians—arguably the greatest seafarers in history—have long intrigued researchers of an anthropological turn of mind, and two of them, Jean Trejaut and Marie Lin of Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei, think they know the answer to the riddle of Hawaiki: Taiwan.

This is not a total surprise. Linguistic evidence pointed that way already. But, in a study just published in Public Library of Science Biology, Dr Trejaut and Dr Lin nail the question down with that talisman of modern research, genetics.

Present day Taiwan has a population of 23m, but only 400,000 are descended from the island's original inhabitants (the majority of the population is descended from mainland Chinese who have settled there over the past 400 years). Those 400,000 speak—or, at least historically spoke—languages belonging to a group known as Austronesian, which is unrelated to Chinese, but includes the Polynesian tongues. Indeed, small though the aboriginal Taiwanese population is, it accounts for nine of the ten linguistic sub-families of Austronesian. Hence the supposition that Hawaiki might be Taiwan.

To check this out, Dr Trejaut and Dr Lin decided to look at variations in mitochondrial DNA. This is passed from mother to offspring without genetic admixture from the father, because it is found in the bodies of cells—including, crucially, egg cells—rather than in the cell nuclei where the rest of the genes reside. (Sperm jettison their mitochondrial DNA at fertilisation.) That makes tracing mutations through the generations easier than looking at those genes that get mixed up by sex.

In a study involving 640 people from nine Taiwanese tribes, Dr Trejaut and Dr Lin found three mutations shared by Taiwanese, Polynesians and Melanesians (who also speak Austronesian) which are not found in other Asians. So the mystery seems to have been solved at last. Where the Taiwanese came from, though, is a different question again.

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