No contact between Easter Island and South America, study finds

DNA shows no trace of contact between ancient Easter Islanders and South America

One of the big questions is whether or not the early islanders had any contact with Indigenous South Americans.

Dating suggested three of these individuals lived between 1445 and 1624 AD - before European contact - while the other two were dated between 1815 and 1945; well after European arrival on the island. "There's a lot of evidence that seems plausible, so we were convinced we would find direct evidence of pre-European contact with South America, but it wasn't there". The new study finds no genetic evidence that ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui intermixed with South Americans.

The team reached its conclusion by studying bone fragments and published its findings October 12 in Current Biology. While the findings can't exclude the possibility that cultural contact took place between the two populations, if long-distance treks across the ocean did occur, "they did not leave genetic traces among the individual samples", said Lars Fehren-Schmitz of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "We were surprised that we didn't find any Native American admixture in our ancient Rapanui specimens". But Fehren-Schmitz says plausibility isn't proof, and there's more work to be done. This immediately conjured the image of daredevil Polynesians manning their wooden outrigger canoes, making a spectacular journey more than 2,000 miles across the ocean where they made contact with American Natives.

Professor Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, said the original claim of native American ancestry on Rapa Nui had always been contentious, especially given the only archaeological evidence was the sweet potato crop.

It could be that the pre-Columbian individuals that Fehren-Schmitz et al. analyzed came from isolated families that had yet to contact the Native American genetic signature, which would have already been present on the island in other individuals. After all, the initial study sampled 28 individuals while this time only five individuals were analyzed. For Fehren-Schmitz, they serve as a strong prompt for further investigation.

The new study highlights the value of ancient DNA for testing hypotheses about the past. Scientists still don't know just how or when it became inhabited. Slavery and mass deportation soon followed.

CELL PRESS-Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile) has always been a source of intrigue and mystery.

Another explanation for the earlier study's finding of native American ancestry may relate to the mixed European and South American ethnicity of the crews that visited the island. "The population dynamics of these regions are fascinating".

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