New research on ancient Pacific skeletons reveals Maori ancestors

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1475536827695The DNA sequenced came from the remains of some of the earliest settlers to Vanuatu and Tonga. SUPPLIED/FAIRFAX NZ

Three-thousand year-old skulls found in the Pacific have confirmed early ancestors of Maori were from Asian farming groups.

Researchers say this creates the first basic picture of the genomic makeup of Pacific Islanders and could give insights into why health issues like obesity and diabetes are such challenges for Maori and Pasifika people today. 

Published on Tuesday in the journal Nature, the study analysed the skeletons of the first people to settle in Vanuatu and Tonga. The bones were discovered at archaeological sites.

1475536827695 1It was found that these earliest Pacific settlers originated from Asian farming groups. SUPPLIED/FAIRFAX NZ

They revealed these ancestors were especially good at storing fat, which was useful when travelling long distances in boats without a huge supply of food, Professor Murray Cox of Massey University's Institute of Fundamental Sciences.

"But you come to the modern world and the ability to store fat is a negative thing."

It also settles a long-standing dispute over the origins of  Pacific ancestry.

1475536827695 2They studied remains from Vanuatu were from a 3000-year-old burial site which contained 60 skeletons. SUPPLIED/FAIRFAX NZ

Previously, it was thought Asian farming groups may have mixed with Papuans near New Guinea and then migrated to the Pacific but the research revealed "little to no" evidence they had travelled from Papua.

Instead, the first settlers in the Pacific came from farming groups who moved out of Asia, Cox said.

Maori and Pasifika have both Papuan and Asian ancestry and the reason for this has been debated for 40 years.

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

Despite the age of the ancient bones, DNA survived in the thick, dense part of the skull.

Cox said the research made it clear Asian farming groups settled in the Pacific, then mixed with Papuans, who arrived later.

The DNA sequenced came from three skeletons found in a 3000-year-old burial site in Vanuatu and one from Tonga, thought to be about 2500 years old. 

Researchers compared the data with DNA samples of 356 present-day humans from across Southeast Asian and Oceanic countries. 

This was the first study of ancient genomic DNA from any tropical region. 

"There's not really been much work linking information from modern data to ancient data."

The multi-million dollar research was a collaboration between Massey University, The Australian National University, James Cook University, University of Waikato.

But none of these institutes had the facilities for ancient DNA analysis, so this was carried out in dedicated ancient DNA laboratories at University College Dublin, Harvard Medical School, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Cox received a grant of about $1m from the Royal Society of New Zealand.