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Two Pacific scientists suggest second group of migrants

By Tina Mata’afa PAGO PAGO, American Samoa, (Samoa News, Feb. 23, 2010) - A new theory on the origins of Polynesians in the Samoan and Tongan islands suggests that inhabitants are not only descendants of the Lapita people but also another group of migrants who moved into the region 1,500 years ago and mixed with the Lapita.

[PIR editor’s note: The term Lapita refers to an ancient Pacific culture that archaeologists believe to be the common ancestor of the contemporary cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and some areas of Melanesia. The culture takes its name from the site of Lapita in New Caledonia, one of the first places where its distinctive pottery was discovered. The Lapita were a seafaring people who settled primarily on the coast rather than inland and their skilled navigators traversed the ocean with ease.]

The theory is the brainchild of two researchers— Dr. David Addison, research archaeologist at the Samoan Studies Institute at the American Samoa Community College and Professor of Biological Anthropology, Dr. Lisa Matisoo-Smith, Department of Anatomy & Structural Biology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Addison and Matisoo-Smith’s ideas have been presented at a number of archaeological conferences over the last three years.

Most recently, on Thursday, Feb. 18, Addison presented during the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) Land Grant Seminar Series, a well-attended event held at the Land Grant Conference Room.

At the local presentation, community members, researchers from government agencies, archaeologists, historians, college students, some college instructors and scientists were in attendance.

"It’s a new theory for Polynesian origins that says Polynesians, their culture, language and biology were developed in the West Polynesia region around Tonga and Samoa about 1,500 years ago," Addison explained in a public talk last Thursday at the Land Grant Conference Room, "when a new group of people came from somewhere in the west and mixed with the Lapita descendants who had been living in the region since 3,000 years ago.

Addison says the new theory is based on "genetic evidence from humans and animals that were brought with them to the Pacific." Animals included rats and chickens.

"It is also based on archaeological evidence and the oral traditions" of the Polynesians who settled the islands of Samoa and Tonga, he added.

The synthesis of the genetic evidence is largely the part of Matisoo-Smith, professor of biological anthropology at Otago, New Zealand. "Her major work focuses on the use of DNA and ancient DNA data to address issues of Pacific prehistory," says the Otago Web site.

She also works extensively on studies of commensal animals— those animals that were transported by Pacific peoples during their colonization of the Pacific: dogs, pigs, chickens and rats.

Matisoo-Smith leads a major program focused on the human settlement of the Pacific and the impacts that humans had on biodiversity on island environments.

Addison said that he and Matisoo-Smith have been developing these ideas over the last several years.

He told Samoa News evidence from humans is ambiguous, conflicting with the Lapita Model.

"The evidence from animals is also suggesting that the study of Polynesian origins is more complicated than just Lapita descendants," Addison said.

Oral traditions, Addison explains, centered on Tagaloa, indicate that the first Polynesians came from Samoa and spread to the south and west.

This is in contrast to clear archaeological evidence of Lapita descendants inhabiting Samoa and Tonga from at least 2,500 years ago.

He said the old stories indicate something more complicated than a Lapita-only origin for Polynesians.

Addison points out that there are weaknesses in the current model.

"Recently developed data doesn’t fit well with the orthodox model," he continued.

The current, or, orthodox model— the most widely accepted— explains that some 3,000 years ago Lapita peopled traveled from the Bismarck archipelago in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to the Samoan islands and inhabited almost all of the islands in between.

The model holds that Polynesians developed from there, from their Lapita ancestors in Tonga and Samoa.

Addison told the News that the ideas are not about who’s right or wrong but that the theory will give "researchers in the Pacific two models to evaluate their data against— so it’s not just about confirming the same model even if the data don’t fit."

He notes now there are two alternatives to evaluate and researchers can look at things in different ways with their new theory.

"If the data in the coming years end up supporting the current model, it will have strengthened the model," says Addison. Researchers can now work toward which theory more fully represents the reality of the past, he added.

"Conversely, if new research data ends up supporting the alternative model in the coming years we have increased our understanding of the complex processes involved in the pre-history of the Pacific," explained Addison.

Addison noted that "in more than a decade of doing archaeology in Tutuila, I’ve just been truly blessed by experiencing Samoan people’s enthusiasm and interest for the past."

"I’m thankful to the people of Tutuila and Manu’a who have allowed archaeologists access to their land to do research on their ancestors and their past," he said.

The ASCC instructor also encourages young Samoan students to study their past and consider archaeology as a career.

"And to get their degrees and graduate education in archaeology," Addison adds.

The theory has already been presented to archaeologists from around the world at a number of academic conferences.

It was presented at the 8th International Conference on Oceanic Linguistics this year in Auckland; last year in Hawaii at the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology conference; at the 19th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association in Hanoi; while preliminary elements of the new theory were presented at the 7th International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific in 2007 in Sweden.

In addition, a paper on Addison and Matisoo-Smith’s theory will be published in the academic journal Archaeology in Oceania in April.

The Archaeology in Oceania Journal is published online and in print only three times a year— April, July and October. It accepts articles and research reports in prehistoric and historical archaeology, modern material culture and human biology of ancient and modern human populations focusing on the islands of the Pacific Ocean and lands of the western Pacific rim and Australia.

The local response has been "enthusiastic" Addison told Samoa News while the response at these major conferences have been positive.

"It’s generally been positive, there have been some specific questions and some constructive criticism," he said.

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