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According to folklore, Polynesians originated from a mythical homeland called Hawaiki. Their origins and the existence of such a place, however, have been the subject of much speculation. In a new study in the premier open access journal PLoS Biology, Jean Trejaut and colleagues now provide the first direct evidence for the common ancestry of Polynesians and indigenous Taiwanese.

Genetic techniques involving mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have been used to try and determine whether there is a link between Polynesians and other Southeast Asian populations by estimating how much mtDNA different populations have in common. Early results were conflicting or inconclusive; however, the research by Trejaut et al. has finally nailed this down. Trejaut et al. analyzed mtDNA from people in China, Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and Taiwan. The authors focused specifically on the aboriginal populations of Taiwan, suggested to be ancestors of today's Polynesians, and looked for unique genetic markers that occurred in the aboriginal people. They then compared these markers to those found in mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and other Southeast Asian peoples.

Trejaut et al. found that the indigenous Taiwanese, Melanesian, and Polynesian populations share three specific mutations in their mtDNA that do not occur in mainland east Asian populations. Furthermore, they showed that there are enough different mtDNA mutations between the mainland Chinese population and the aboriginal Taiwanese to support archeological findings suggesting a long period of habitation. These results indicate that Taiwanese aboriginal populations have been genetically isolated from mainland Chinese for 10,000 to 20,000 years, and that Polynesian migration probably originated from people identical to the aboriginal Taiwanese. Further research will be necessary to precisely determine the origins of the aboriginal Taiwanese; however, these results are a step towards clarifying the origins of Polynesians.

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Citation: Trejaut JA, Kivisild T, Loo JH, Lee CL, He CL, et al. (2005) Traces of archaic mitochondrial lineages persist in Austronesian-speaking Formosan populations. PLoS Biol 3(8): e247.


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