Polynesian controversies and genetic evidence

Yuri Kuchinsky yuku at globalserve.net
Wed Dec 30 14:26:23 EST 1998

Thanks for your reply, Gisele.

G Horvat (gisele at connect.ab.ca) wrote on Wed, 23 Dec 1998 08:39:52 GMT:
: On 22 Dec 1998 22:45:51 GMT, yuku at globalserve.net (Yuri Kuchinsky)
: wrote:

: >You obviously have done more to investiage all this new evidence than I
: >have, so you may understand it better than I do. But I've been looking
: >into cultural comparisons around the Pacific basin for a long time, and
: >I'm saying that, in my view, cultural connections between NW Coast and
: >Polynesia are many and strong. It is unlikely that Polynesians came to NW
: >Coast -- the reverse is far more likely. 

: Since mtDNA is inherited through the maternal line, Polynesian (or
: Pre-Polynesian?) males settling among and marrying Haplotype A females
: would result in Haplotype A descendents but I don't think this could
: be applied to the reverse.  

: The following journal contains comparisons of genetic distances based
: on mtDNA (maternal) compared to biparental STR distances (Figures 3 &
: 4):

: Mitochondrial and Nuclear Genetic
: Relationships among Pacific Island and Asian
: Populations 

: J. Koji Lum,1 Rebecca L. Cann,2 Jeremy J. Martinson,3 and Lynn B.
: Jorde4 

: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v63n2/970649/970649.html

I have read this article. Thanks for pointing it out.

I think this article illustrates very well the perils of disregarding the
general archaeological, historical and cultural contexts for the
populations one is trying to compare. Geneticists are not the only ones in
danger of failing to account fully for such contexts.

We live in the time of increasing narrow specialisation. A specialist in
one area often has problems factoring in data from other relevant areas of

Geneticists have already contributed significantly to tracing ancient
migrations. In particular, good mtDNA evidence now documents some
connections between ancient Polynesia and S America -- supporting theories
that have been proposed by Thor Heyerdahl many years ago. But let's keep
in mind that this sort of research is still in its infancy.

The question we're discussing now is the second part of Heyerdahl's
general theory, i.e. the connections between the American Pacific NW Coast
and Polynesia -- a separate matter, really. It is my belief that no DNA
work at all has yet been done in this area, although very good blood group
evidence exists for these ancient links. I can provide bibliography on

The article in question, by Lum et al, bases itself on the generally
accepted views in Polynesian history. But there are huge problems with
mainstream views in this area. The biggest problem is that mainstream
historians and anthropologists strongly DISAGREE AMONG THEMSELVES. There
are huge disagreements about the Lapita problem, for example. I don't
think Lum et al realize the full implications of this.

So let's look at some of these basic contradictions, especially about the
Lapita connection. As I've written before, ALL MAINSTREAM POLYNESIANISTS
accept without question that Polynesians derived from the Lapita culture.
But at the same time, and without skipping a beat, they engage in bitter
controversies re: "Express Train" model vs. "Differentiator/Entangled
Bank" model! I see this as quite absurd.

[quote from Lum et al with some background on this controversy among

     The linguistic patterns and correlated settlement dates described
above support the "express train" model (Diamond 1988) of Remote Oceanic
colonization. This model sees island Southeast Asia as the origin of the
Austronesian language family and, thus, of the Remote Oceanic Islanders.
mtDNA analyses of Pacific Islanders have identified predominantly Asian
haplotypes in Polynesia and Micronesia, with minimal genetic input (5%)
from Near Oceania (Hertzberg et al. 1989; Lum et al. 1994; Redd et al.
1995; Sykes et al. 1995; Lum and Cann 1998), in general agreement with the
express train model. 

     A competing hypothesis sees Remote Oceanic settlement as an outgrowth
of complex, long-term interactions among Near Oceanic and other western
Pacific populations. These long-term contacts are thought to result in
culturally and biologically heterogeneous populations in western Melanesia
that gave rise to Remote Oceanic colonists, without a second migration.
This view argues that Pacific populations cannot be described by a simple
branching tree but, rather, should be viewed as an entangled bank (Terrell
1988). The term "entangled bank" is borrowed from Darwin's (1859) work, in
which he attempted to emphasize that the complex, subtle forces affecting
the fitness of species are difficult to dissect by examining a single
trait or behavior. ... nuclear genetic studies reveal complex patterns of
gene flow consistent with the entangled bank model or, alternatively, a
"slow train" to Remote Oceania.

[end quote]

At stake in this dispute is How long Polynesians spent in the Melanesian
area (assuming they originated in this area of course, which, to me, is
far from clear). "Express Train" says very little, and "Differentator/Slow
Train" says a very long time. But here, when one keeps in mind the Lapita
origin theory, the whole debate becomes rather unreal.

As I've written before,



But why are these debates happening at all, one may ask? Isn't there      
something terribly wrong here? Because if everyone is so _totally_ sure   
that the Lapita was where the Polynesians originated from, what would be  
the meaning of these debates? The Lapita have left us plenty of pottery,  
and judging by that there's no doubt whatsoever as to how long they stayed
in their island territory -- they stayed there for a very long time! So   
perhaps the Lapita are not the source culture after all?                  
[end quote]
Such apparent self-contradictions within the mainstream positions abound,
but this is one of the key ones. So what do Lum et al do about this? They
found evidence to support both sides of the debate that is unreal to start

[quote from Lum et al]

Maternally inherited mtDNA data suggest that Remote Oceanic Islanders
originated in island Southeast Asia [consistent with "Express Train"]. In
contrast, biparental STR data reveal substantial genetic affinities
between Remote Oceanic Islanders and Near Oceanic populations from
highland Papua New Guinea and Australia [consistent with


These results are consistent with an initial settlement of Remote Oceania
from island Southeast Asia and with extensive postcolonization male-biased
gene flow with Near Oceania.

[end quote]

The obvious problem here seems to be, How did SE Asian islanders manage to
get to Remote Polynesia "initially"? Perhaps via NW Coast? Then this would
support the second part of Heyerdahl's theory? Heresy, according to
mainstream Polynesianists!

So, basically, instead of clarifying the debate, Lum et al are actually
providing ammunition for both sides, and are trying to reconcile the two

I would say, Why even bother? The whole debate is meaningless, by my
lights. One cannot proclaim loudly that Lapita is the origin, and then
forget about it and merrily engage in this other debate! This is not

The key to the conclusions, such as they are, of Lum et al seems to be:


     The mtDNA and STR genetic distances depict different patterns of
relationships among Pacific Island and Asian populations (see figs. 3 and
4). The major difference between these patterns is the substantial
affinities between Remote Oceanic Islanders and Near Oceanic populations
from highland Papua New Guinea and Australia, observed in the STR data but
not in the mtDNA data.

[end quote]

So this is how they find support for both of our models, the "Express
Train" and the "Differentiator". The authors try to explain this
difference as the result of two separate gene flows, the male and the
female ones, but I wonder if this explanation really works, and/or if it
is sufficient to explain this difference.

Here is, once again, a restatement of the problem and the suggested
solution by Lum et al,


The Express Train and the Entangled Bank 

     There is general agreement about the dispersal of Pacific Islanders
throughout Remote Oceania, but their origin west of Melanesia remains
controversial. Based largely on linguistic evidence and interpretations of
archaeology, the prevailing view depicts island Southeast Asia as the
origin of Remote Oceanic Islanders (Diamond 1988). The extreme version of
this view describes this colonization as an express train that leaves
southern China and transports its occupants through Near Oceania and into
Remote Oceania without stopping to pick up any additional passengers. A
competing view, championed most enthusiastically by Terrell (1988), sees
the colonization of Remote Oceania as an expansion of Near Oceanic
populations through long-term interactions with other western Pacific
populations. These complex, long-term interactions, described
metaphorically as an entangled bank, gave rise to the cultural innovations
characteristic of Remote Oceania (Terrell 1988; Terrell et al. 1997). This
view is supported by studies in Melanesia that document a general lack of
congruence between genetic and linguistic patterns throughout the region
(Serjeantson et al. 1983; Welsch et al. 1992). Our present analyses
indicate that these views may not be incompatible. 

     By examining different genetic systems from the same individuals, we
have generated patterns consistent with both views. ... We have argued
that the differences between these patterns result from postcolonization
male-biased gene flow. Genetic interactions between populations after
initial colonization may have been mediated by a predominantly male
segment of voyaging societies, engaged in the control of resources. This
bias served to preserve pre-existing linguistic differences, lines of
status, and hierarchical divisions among matrilineal kinship groups. Thus,
we see female settlement as an express train and male gene flow as an
entangled bank. 

[end quote]

Now, I found the data provided by Lum et al in the following table very


According to this, gene diversity on remote Polynesian islands such as
Hawaii and Easter Island is very low -- the lowest of all groups compared.
This applies both to mtDNA Diversity, and to the STR Diversity, although
to a lesser extent in the latter comparison. I think this would be
consistent with Heyerdahl's general model, since, according to him,
Hawaiians would have originated from NW Coast, and would have had few
contacts with other Polynesian islands, and especially with Micronesia.
But if one assumes, with the mainstream, that the Hawaiians came from the
Melanesian area, how did they lose all that diversity? One would need to
postulate some ad hoc hypotheses here, which would contradict the
principle of parsimony.

And now, to some other points you've raised.

: I notice that James Swan thought similarities existed between the
: crafts of the Haida and those of the Central American:

: "It is an interesting question, and one worthy of careful and patient
: investigation, why it is that the Haida Nation alone of all the coast
: tribes tattoo their persons to such an extent, and how they acquire
: the art of carving columns which bear such striking similarity to
: carving in wood and stone by the ancient inhabitants of Central
: America, as shown by drawings in Bancroft's fourth volume of Native
: Races and in Habel's investigation in Central and South America."

: (from James Swan's Tattoo Marks of the Haida (1878))

Yes, this is very interesting. But, in his AMERICAN INDIANS IN THE
PACIFIC, Heyerdahl has accumulated a huge number of such cultural
parallels. Although this book has a very extensive bibliography (adding up
to over 500 items!), Swan is not there.

: It would seem that the art of tattooing either originated in the Haida
: nation or was brought to the NW coast by those who were later to
: become the Haida.

An interesting puzzle...

: Could the Central Americans referred to be grouped together with
: Andeans or N. Chileans, Polynesians and natives of the NW Coast of
: Canada?

I think it is possible that some Polynesians may have reached C America
and settled in there. The question is How extensive are such cultural
items in C and S America? I'm not sure at this point.

: Swan also wrote a great deal about tattoo marks on the hands of the
: Haida women:

: "Although it is very easy to distinguish the Haida women from those of
: other tribes by seeing the tattoo marks on the backs of their hands,
: yet very few white persons have cared to know the meaning of these
: designs, or are aware of the extent of the tattoo marks on the persons
: of both sexes."

: This reminded me of the Z-shaped tattoos on the knuckles of the women
: of some Pacific Island (New Zealand?) mentioned by Cook.  I don't know
: if the "backs of hands" refers specifically to knuckles, though. 

: >So the genetic evidence should be
: >there as well.

: It still could be.....

: >The S American -- Polynesian connections are now becoming well accepted,
: >and this supports Heyerdahl. There's much more general awareness of this
: >part of his overall theory. But AFAIC no such awareness is apparent for
: >his NW Coast -- Polynesia theories. NOBODY is aware of this old research,
: >including geneticists of course. (Witness Paul Bahn's blooper that I'm
: >reposting in another thread.) 

: >Before you can expect geneticists to provide support for these links, the
: >least you should expect is for them to be informed that they have been
: >postulated. I think such evidence will emerge in the future. Very good
: >blood group evidence exists already, so I would be very surprised if DNA
: >evidence is absent. It's there, it's just not been identified.
: >
: >Keep in mind how obscure these theories are at this point. Nobody said
: >that the history of Pacific migrations is simple. Confusion still reigns
: >in this area.

: I agree.

: >This is how I feel about this whole thing.

: Thank-you.  I was trying very hard to remain objective, although, as
: indicated in this posting, I'm not really opposed to your suggestion.

Best regards, and Season's Greetings!


Yuri Kuchinsky -=O=- http://www.globalserve.net/~yuku

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than
to put out on the troubled seas of thought -=O=- John K. Galbraith

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