In Easter Island DNA, Evidence of Genetic Loneliness

Scientists have long wondered how early people sailed to the island — as well as how they built the island’s impressive Moai.

Genetic tests have shown that the modern Rapanui people have a mix of Polynesian, South American and European ancestry. Some scientists have used the modern DNA results to suggest that Polynesians from the west and native South Americans from the east lived and intermingled on the island before Europeans first arrived in 1722. And in the famous Kon-Tiki expedition, a Norwegian explorer named Thor Heyerdahl showed on a balsa wood raft how South Americans could have voyaged to the Polynesian islands during pre-Columbian times.

But that does not mean it was probable, according to Lars Fehren-Schmitz, a biological anthropologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study.

Using rib bones from five Easter Island individuals from 1445 to 1945 that had been excavated in the 1980s and stored in the Kon-Tiki museum in Norway, Dr. Fehren-Schmitz and his colleagues attempted to sequence the genome of the island’s earliest inhabitants. The team extracted enough useful genetic information from the remains to analyze and draw conclusions that could be representative of the larger ancient population.

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“I was pretty surprised when we didn’t find any Native American signals in our pre-contact samples,” Dr. Fehren-Schmitz said. “Honestly, at first I thought I did something wrong with the statistics. Then it was an ‘a-ha moment.’”

Scientists who were not involved in the study pointed out some of its limitations.

“This is a valuable work as it presents the first ancient whole genome data from Rapa Nui,” Víctor Moreno-Mayar, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, said in an email. But he cautioned that with only a handful of samples,…

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