Genetic clue to Easter Island mystery

Easter Island has always been a puzzle to archaeologists and historians.

Hundreds of miles from the nearest land, this small Pacific island hosted a culture that built the famous Easter Island statues, and then vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.

Now DNA evidence has shed new light on where the Easter Islanders came from. It turns out that while most of the islanders’ heritage has roots in Polynesia, as scholars have long believed, they also have some South American ancestry.

Norwegian scientist Erik Thorsby has found genes among Easter Islanders that are only in South American Indian populations. These genes had recombined with Polynesian genes, something that only happens after many generations.

The findings are tentative because Thorsby only tested one extended family but supporting evidence comes from an excavation in Chile that found evidence of Polynesian visitors in the 14th and 15th centuries. Given that the Polynesians were arguably the best sailors of the preindustrial world, they probably went lots of places we don’t know about.

Ancient migrations were more common than most people believe, and in recent years DNA evidence has revealed many anomalies not recorded in history. It’s best to be cautious, however. Some overeager researchers called hyperdiffusionists want to see all sorts of cultures coming from one source–the Greeks or the Egyptians or whatever their favorite happens to be. They tend to make unsupported claims about places like America’s Stonehenge, which is probably not ancient, and descend into New Age archaeology.

As Thorsby’s findings show, real science can be much more exciting than myth making.

[Photo courtesy user davitydave via Gadling’s flickr pool]