Native American gene flow into Polynesia predating Easter Island settlement

Nature. 2020 Jul;583(7817):572-577. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2487-2. Epub 2020 Jul 8.


The possibility of voyaging contact between prehistoric Polynesian and Native American populations has long intrigued researchers. Proponents have pointed to the existence of New World crops, such as the sweet potato and bottle gourd, in the Polynesian archaeological record, but nowhere else outside the pre-Columbian Americas1-6, while critics have argued that these botanical dispersals need not have been human mediated7. The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl controversially suggested that prehistoric South American populations had an important role in the settlement of east Polynesia and particularly of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)2. Several limited molecular genetic studies have reached opposing conclusions, and the possibility continues to be as hotly contested today as it was when first suggested8-12. Here we analyse genome-wide variation in individuals from islands across Polynesia for signs of Native American admixture, analysing 807 individuals from 17 island populations and 15 Pacific coast Native American groups. We find conclusive evidence for prehistoric contact of Polynesian individuals with Native American individuals (around AD 1200) contemporaneous with the settlement of remote Oceania13-15. Our analyses suggest strongly that a single contact event occurred in eastern Polynesia, before the settlement of Rapa Nui, between Polynesian individuals and a Native American group most closely related to the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Colombia.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Central America / ethnology
  • Colombia / ethnology
  • Europe / ethnology
  • Gene Flow / genetics*
  • Genetics, Population
  • Genome, Human / genetics*
  • History, Medieval
  • Human Migration / history*
  • Humans
  • Indians, Central American / genetics*
  • Indians, South American / genetics*
  • Islands*
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander / genetics*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Polynesia
  • South America / ethnology
  • Time Factors