Genetic Evidence Says Easter Island Had Visitors 100s Of Years Before Previously Thought

Scientists published a study in Current Biology that suggests the inhabitants of the remote Easter Island had contact with the Americas hundreds of years before previously thought.

Heritage Daily reports that, according to new genomic evidence, the Rapa Nui people living on one of the most isolated islands had significant contact with Native American populations hundreds of years before Jakob Roggeveen, whose ships arrived on the islands in 1722. In fact, it appears that the population of the island had been mating with Native American people hundreds of years before Roggeveen set foot in the region.

The findings were reported in the journal Current Biology yesterday, and provide the first genetic evidence for such an early trans-Pacific route between Polynesia and the Americas. The journey from Easter Island to the Americas would be almost 2,500 miles, making it a daunting journey for early Native Americans or Rapa Nui people. However, it appears these journeys did take place.

The journey is so impressive that some scientists say we should reevaluate our entire understanding of early Rapa Nui travel. Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas from the Natural History Museum of Denmark's Centre for GeoGenetics notes that "early human populations extensively explored the planet" according to this new data. They were actually taking to the seas.

"Textbook versions of human colonisation events – the peopling of the Americas, for example – need to be re-evaluated utilising genomic data."

Reuters reports the exact timeline the study believes that interbreeding occurred between Rapa Nui and South American natives.

"Genetic data on 27 Easter Island natives indicated that interbreeding between the Rapa Nui and native people in South America occurred roughly between 1300 and 1500."

Though genetics can not indicate which people made the journey, scientists believe it was most likely the Rapa Nui who made the dangerous ocean journey. Mark Stoneking, a geneticist with Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who collaborated on a related study of Brazil's indigenous Botocudo people, says he believes that the Rapa Nui made their way to South America, and brought the Native Americans back with them.

"It seems most likely that they voyaged from Rapa Nui to South America and brought South Americans back to Rapa Nui and admixed with them. So it will be interesting to see if in further studies any signal of Polynesian, Rapa Nui ancestry can be found in South Americans."

To further back up the findings that Rapa Nui were the ones doing the traveling, a second study, also published in Thursday's issue of Current Biology, illustrates another case of Polynesians venturing into South America. Two ancient human skulls from Brazil's indigenous Botocudo people, known for the large wooden disks they wore in their lips and ears, belonged to people who were genetically Polynesian, with no detectable Native American ancestry.

This means the previous understanding that the inhabitants of Easter Island were isolated is completely false. In fact, it appears the Rapa Nui made the transpacific journey many times prior to the arrive of Westerners to the island.