Relations with the Philippines
Compared to the first settlement in Polynesia, the settlement of the Marianas in the western Pacific about 3,500 years ago has so far received little attention. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Australian National University and the University of Guam have now investigated the origins of the first settlers of the Mariana Islands and their relationship to the first settlers of Polynesia.

To reach the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, people crossed more than 2,000 kilometers of open ocean, some 2,000 years earlier than other sea voyages over similarly long distances. The settlement of the Mariana Islands about 3,500 years ago took place somewhat earlier than the first settlement of Polynesia, according to the study recently published in the journal PNAS.

“We know more about the settlement of Polynesia than about the settlement of the Mariana Islands,” says first author Irina Pugach, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The researchers wanted to find out where the people who reached the Mariana Islands came from, and to what extent the ancestors of the Chamorro – today’s inhabitants of the Mariana Islands – might be related to Polynesians.

To find answers to these questions, the scientists examined the genetic material of two human skeletons from the Ritidian Beach cave in northern Guam. The two skeletons were dated to an age of about 2,200 years. “The DNA of these two ancient skeletons shows kinship with the Philippines,” says Pugach. “Our results confirm what linguistic and archaeological studies have shown: they point to an insular South-East Asian origin of the first settlers of the Mariana Islands,” says co-author Mike T. Carson, archaeologist at the Micronesian area Research Center at the University of Guam.

“We also find a close connection between the old Guam-skeletons and early Lapita individuals from Vanuatu and Tonga in the Western Pacific,” adds Pugach. “The Mariana Islands and Polynesia may have been colonized by the same original population. In addition, the Marianas may have played a role in the later settlement of Polynesia.«

The researchers point out that although their investigations provide interesting new findings, they are based only on the analysis of the genetic material of two skeletons, which date from around 1,400 years after the first settlement of Guam. “The settlement history of Guam and the remote island groups in Oceania should be investigated even more intensively.”says senior author Mark Stoneking from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

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