Category Archives: Oceania

The human colonization of Australia and Near Melanesia

Continuing with the joint series of articles on the expansion of Homo sapiens, David Sánchez published last week an interesting piece[es] on the original colonization of Australia and Papua at Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, which I’ll try to synthesize here.

Earliest evidences of human occupation of Australia and Near Melanesia (all before 30 Ka BP)

Maybe the most interesting detail is that Lake Mungo 3 has dates that clearly establish a colonization of the continent at least 60,000 years ago:

81.000 +- 21.000 U (Uranium series)
62.000 +- 6.000 ESR/U (Electron spin resonance/Uranium)
61.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)
40.000 +- 2.000 OSL (Optical Stimulated luminiscence)

The sites of Nauwalbila I and Malakunanja II have provided similar dates: 60-50 Ka BP (OSL) and 61,000 BP +9,000/-13,000 (TL) respectively. So we can safely discard the conservative approach that only allowed for at most 50 Ka as earliest colonization boundary for the Oceanian continental landmass. 
The depiction of a Genyornis, giant duck-like bird extinct before 40 Ka, in Australian rock art ago also supports a very early date for the settlement of Australia. In Highland Papua human presence is also confirmed to at least 49 Ka ago, as I reported in 2010.
Naturally the settlers must have arrived by sea, the most commonly accepted candidate for such a vessel is a humble raft still used by some Papuan populations and which has parallels in Southern Asia (also still in use in some places):

Such a journey was attempted with a similar but larger raft, equipped with a simple sail named Nale Tasih 2. This craft had no trouble in reaching the continental platform of Australia from Timor in just six days and they actually managed to reach the modern Australian coast, although they desisted of beaching by night in the middle of a storm in an area infested by the largest crocodiles on Earth, being evacuated by the coastguard instead (the barge was later recovered in perfect state).

Australian Burrup Peninsula’s rock art is 30,000 years old

The open air engravings have managed to survive thanks to the extremely low erosion rates produced by the hardness of the rock combined with the local climate. 

The petroglyphs have been dated using the isotope beryllium-10. Based on current evidence, the archaeologists say, the occupation of the peninsula cannot be dated to before c. 42,000 years ago. 

Source: Australian Geographic.

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Posted by on April 22, 2013 in Australia, Oceania, rock art, Upper Paleolithic


Northern Marianas was first colonized from Philippines

Lapita pot from Tonga (source)
The first known colonists of Tinian (Northern Marianas) were people coming from Luzon and using a kind of red painted pottery which is also found in Northern Luzon, Philippines, similar to  Lapita (Island Melanesia, Polynesia).
However these people seem to have arrived to the Marianas a century or two before the Lapita carriers (precursors of Oceanic languages) reached Melanesia, according to Peter Bellwood.
Source and more details: Islands Business (interview with Bellwood), via Pileta.
See also:

Posted by on February 28, 2013 in archaeology, Neolithic, Oceania, sea


Submerged rock art from Papua

In the World-famous diving paradise of Raja Ampat, just West of the Bird’s Head peninsula of Papua (aka New Guinea), there is more than one of the greatest biodiversity areas of the planet. It has been found recently that off the shore of Misool, one of the major islands of the archipelago, there is also abundance of beautifully conserved Paleolithic murals.

The now submerged rock art is found in 13 different sites (so far), most of them sharing an intriguing pattern of location:
  • a large and rather high cliff;
  • a cavity, cave, overhang or hole around the foot of the cliff;
  • a main coloured (red-yellow to red-brown) wide strip pouring out, or reaching down to the cavity;
  • a (facultative) step-bank (coral or karst platform) at the foot. 
The art was obviously above the water level until the sea flooded all that area at the end of the Ice Age. 
Sources: World Archaeological Congress, Stone Pages’ Archaeonews.

Update (Feb 24): after being down for days, causing perplexity among some readers and myself, the WAC source site is up again. Exactly as it was four days ago. Just in case this time I’ll upload the images here. 

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Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Oceania, Paleolithic, Papua, rock art


Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup Q in Oceania

Even if a very specialized detail, this lineage may help to shed light on the colonization of Oceania:
Chris A. Corser et al., The Q2 Mitochondrial Haplogroup in Oceania. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [ doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052022]


Many details surrounding the origins of the peoples of Oceania remain to be resolved, and as a step towards this we report seven new complete mitochondrial genomes from the Q2a haplogroup, from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati. This brings the total to eleven Q2 genomes now available. The Q haplogroup (that includes Q2) is an old and diverse lineage in Near Oceania, and is reasonably common; within our sample set of 430, 97 are of the Q haplogroup. However, only 8 are Q2, and we report 7 here. The tree with all complete Q genomes is proven to be minimal. The dating estimate for the origin of Q2 (around 35 Kya) reinforces the understanding that humans have been in Near Oceania for tens of thousands of years; nevertheless the Polynesian maternal haplogroups remain distinctive. A major focus now, with regard to Polynesian ancestry, is to address the differences and timing of the ‘Melanesian’ contribution to the maternal and paternal lineages as people moved further and further into Remote Oceania. Input from other fields such as anthropology, history and linguistics is required for a better understanding and interpretation of the genetic data.

Figure 2. Overview of the Q haplogroup.
The dataset has 36 mitochondrial genomes including all eight Q3 sequences, 17 Q1, three Q2 genomes from Friedlaender et al. [28], one from Hudjashov et al. [36],
together with the seven additional Q2a genomes reported here. The
network has been proved the shortest possible (the minimum number of
mutations) by using the techniques in Pierson et al. [40]. Differences in branching between the four equally parsimonious trees occur in the Q3 subgroup.

See also in this blog:


Posted by on December 21, 2012 in mtDNA, Oceania


High precision dating: first Polynesian settlement was in 2838±8 BP

That si Nukuleka, Tonga, and translates as 888±8 BCE (remember that BP means “before 1950”).

David Burley et al., High Precision U/Th Dating of First Polynesian Settlement. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi]


Previous studies document Nukuleka in the Kingdom of Tonga as a founder
colony for first settlement of Polynesia by Lapita peoples. A limited
number of radiocarbon dates are one line of evidence supporting this
claim, but they cannot precisely establish when this event occurred, nor
can they afford a detailed chronology for sequent occupation. High
precision U/Th dates of Acropora coral files (abraders) from
Nukuleka give unprecedented resolution, identifying the founder event by
2838±8 BP and documenting site development over the ensuing 250 years.
The potential for dating error due to post depositional diagenetic
alteration of ancient corals at Nukuleka also is addressed through
sample preparation protocols and paired dates on spatially separated
samples for individual specimens. Acropora coral files are
widely distributed in Lapita sites across Oceania. U/Th dating of these
artifacts provides unparalleled opportunities for greater precision and
insight into the speed and timing of this final chapter in human
settlement of the globe.

Very handy after the recent endless circular discussions. Polynesians this? Polynesians that? Polynesians only since 890 BCE, not before! Earlier related cultures of Lapita were not yet Polynesians but generically Oceanic and mostly of Melanesian stock.
Importantly there are good reasons to consider Nukuleka as the founder site of Polynesia:
The status of Nukuleka as a founder colony is verified through four
lines of evidence. First, while limited, Nukuleka radiocarbon dates are
the earliest for any Lapita site in Polynesia (Table S1).
Second, decorated ceramics from Nukuleka incorporate an assemblage of
Lapita wares similar to those recovered from earlier Lapita sites in
island Melanesia to the west of Tonga. These are markedly different from
later Lapita ceramics in West Polynesia, and Nukuleka is the only site
in West Polynesia where these early ceramics occur [9].
Third, a subset of the ceramic assemblage with the earliest Lapita
designs is foreign to Tonga, based on petrographic analysis of ceramic
temper sands and sherd geochemistry [4].
These pots were transported from the ancestral homeland of the Nukuleka
colonizers, a homeland that has yet to be identified. And fourth, the
settlement at Nukuleka expanded over a 20 ha area on the Nukuleka
Peninsula during the 200–250 year period of Lapita occupation [9]. Nukuleka became a central place for Lapita peoples in West Polynesia as well as a gateway community for expanded settlement.

So it is very likely that the somewhat famed founder effects of Polynesians peoples (Y-DNA C2a and O3a2, mtDNA B4a1a1) were dominant already at this site in this date. However I must say that a second founder effect at nearby Samoa (not considered here), which has a much more similar Y-DNA to Eastern Polynesia, can be taken for granted also.

See also:


Posted by on November 16, 2012 in archaeology, Neolithic, Oceania


Hawaiian genetic study shows 2-1 Asian-Melanesian admixture in Polynesians

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii in her youth

Native Hawaiians still make up some 38% of the population of Hawaii but most of them have mixed ancestry nowadays. This new study may help to understand them better and also includes some interesting findings about the overall origins of Polynesians, whose Melanesian ancestry is revealed as very significant.

Sung K. Kim et al., Population Genetic Structure and Origins of Native Hawaiians in the Multiethnic Cohort Study. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047881]


The population genetic structure of Native Hawaiians has yet to be comprehensively studied, and the ancestral origins of Polynesians remain in question. In this study, we utilized high-resolution genome-wide SNP data and mitochondrial genomes of 148 and 160 Native Hawaiians, respectively, to characterize their population structure of the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, ancestral origins, and population expansion. Native Hawaiians, who self-reported full Native Hawaiian heritage, demonstrated 78% Native Hawaiian, 11.5% European, and 7.8% Asian ancestry with 99% belonging to the B4 mitochondrial haplogroup. The estimated proportions of Native Hawaiian ancestry for those who reported mixed ancestry (i.e. 75% and 50% Native Hawaiian heritage) were found to be consistent with their self-reported heritage. A significant proportion of Melanesian ancestry (mean = 32%) was estimated in 100% self-reported Native Hawaiians in an ADMIXTURE analysis of Asian, Melanesian, and Native Hawaiian populations of K = 2, where K denotes the number of ancestral populations. This notable proportion of Melanesian admixture supports the “Slow-Boat” model of migration of ancestral Polynesian populations from East Asia to the Pacific Islands. In addition, approximately 1,300 years ago a single, strong expansion of the Native Hawaiian population was estimated. By providing important insight into the underlying population structure of Native Hawaiians, this study lays the foundation for future genetic association studies of this U.S. minority population.

In my understanding, the most interesting elements from this study are the ADMIXTURE analyses:

Figure 1. ADMIXTURE clustering of Native Hawaiians for K = 5 (A) and K = 6 (B). Figures 1A and 1B illustrate the clustering of Native Hawaiians and HGDP samples based on GWAS data.

As the general Admixture analysis was not really conclusive about the Melanesian and Asian affinities of Native Hawaiians, the authors also performed a supervised K=2 analysis:

Figure 4. Supervised ADMIXTURE results for K = 2…
This appears to show rather unmistakably that Hawaiians (and by extension surely also other Polynesians, very close in genetics and history across the Pacific Ocean) have an important amount of Melanesian genetics, consistent with the “Slow Boat” model and the relevance of Melanesian Y-DNA haplogroup C2a among all Polynesian populations.