For A SPAN, Serving The Homeless Is An Evolutionary Work In Progress

This was not only relevant as an eccentricity of prehistoric demography, but broadly consequential for the ongoing study of culture itself — of where new ideas come from and how they proliferate. When we thought of populations as stationary and largely stable, we assumed that whatever evolutionary progress they made, from toolmaking to agriculture, reflected either a native innovation or the incorporation of some adjacent group’s avant-garde practice. Now it seemed as though culture was less about the invention and spread of new ideas and more about the mass movements of particular peoples — and the resulting integration, outcompetition or extermination of the communities they overran. Previously, it was possible to think about prehistory as a kind of grand bazaar. Now the operative metaphor (as multiple science journalists observed) was more like Risk, or even “Game of Thrones.”

The ancient-DNA revolution seemed unlikely to have anything to say about Oceania, where the heat and humidity made the preservation of DNA implausible. But in 2014, Stuart Bedford got that second surprise call, from a Dublin-based archaeologist named Ron Pinhasi, a frequent Reich collaborator and procurer of samples. Pinhasi had discovered that the inner ear’s petrous bone, one of the densest in the body, often preserved vast quantities of genetic material. Could he and Reich examine the skulls of Teouma? In Vanuatu, human remains are often associated with ancestral spirits and are thus taboo — understandably, Bedford emphasized to me, explaining that he wouldn’t be comfortable digging up and boring into “Granddad.” But in this case, the ni-Vanuatu expressed no reservations: Local oral traditions contained no sacred reference to the Teouma dead, and Chief Alben gave his blessing. One of Bedford’s colleagues opened the skulls in a workshop warren behind the national museum, extracted the nubbins of petrous bone and shipped them to Dublin, where they were sandblasted. There turned out to be DNA in three of the samples. It was the first to be found in the tropics and suggested the opening of wide new fronts in ancient-DNA research.

The skulls of Teouma were particularly interesting to paleogenomicists not only because they produced the first ancient DNA in the Pacific but because their genetic evidence could be brought to bear on an outstanding debate in the region. The pivotal moment in Pacific archaeological history happened in 1952, when a team of researchers found a cache of dentate-stamped pots at a place called Lapita in New Caledonia, a French collectivity to the southwest of Vanuatu. More than 200 sites eventually turned up nearly duplicate versions of this innovation across an enormous span of the region. The pots were often found with particular varieties of preserved plants and nuts, as well as stone adzes. Whoever made those pots some 3,000 years ago had traveled across more than 2,000 miles of ocean — from near Papua New Guinea to Tonga and Samoa — in perhaps as little as 10 generations. As Patrick V. Kirch, the dean of American archaeology in the Pacific, once put it, “Without a doubt, the Lapita colonization of Remote Oceania ranks as one of the great sagas of world prehistory.”

Where had this “Lapita” culture come from, and who were the people associated with it? Over the last 50 years, a collaboration among archaeologists, linguists, botanists, ecologists, geologists and more had produced some form of consensus. A population of early farmers departed from Taiwan about 5,000 years ago, with the help of the newly developed outrigger canoe. They moved down through the Philippines and the Spice Islands, along the northern coasts of New Guinea and eventually out to the Bismarck Archipelago, more or less the limit of Near Oceania; the “tracer dye” for their path was the language family they left behind, one known as Austronesian. Along the way, they encountered populations of “Papuans” — a generic shorthand for highly distinct groups of people who had been in the Papua New Guinea region for 40,000 years. The interactions between the incoming “Austronesians,” another shorthand for whoever was presumably spreading those languages, and the indigenous Papuans created the constellation of practices that would become known as Lapita. Finally, the people now associated with Lapita sailed into the blankness of the open ocean for the first time, crossing the Remote Oceania divide to Vanuatu and, from there, outward to the farthest reaches of the Pacific.

Archaeologists differed, often bitterly, on the details, but as Reich describes it in his book, the prevailing opinion was that “the Lapita archaeological culture was forged during a period of intense exchange between people ultimately originating in the farming center of China (via Taiwan) and New Guineans.” This certainly made intuitive sense. The people of contemporary Vanuatu are black, like the Papuan people of New Guinea, but they speak Austronesian languages that can ultimately be traced to Asia. Reich believed that the existing consensus was the perfect sort of hypothesis to put to the ancient-DNA test. The Austronesians and the Papuans had been separated by at least 40,000 years of genetic differentiation, which meant that it would be very easy to discriminate by genetic signature. Would the samples taken from the skulls at Teouma show a closer relationship to the people of nearby Papua or the people of distant Asia?

In October 2016, the paper — with such well-regarded Pacific archaeologists as Stuart Bedford and his mentor, Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University, among the 31 authors — was published in Nature as “Genomic Insights Into the Peopling of the Southwest Pacific.” The analysis of ancient DNA from three 3,000-year-old skulls from Teouma, along with one skull dated a few hundred years later from Tonga, appeared to provide unambiguous confirmation of Lapita heritage. The First Remote Oceanians, as the paper calls them, were not, after all, a heterogenous group; they were of unmixed Asian descent.

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