In 2004 a team of archaeologists led by Professor Matthew Spriggs and Dr Stuart Bedford, both from the Australian National University’s (ANU) school of archaeology and anthropology, discovered the oldest known cemetery in the South Pacific, at Teouma, just outside the capital of Port Vila. The dig lasted over several years between 2004 and 2010. They know it was an important find, but had no idea how much the relatively new and evolving science of genetics, with uncontaminated DNA sequencing of the 2,900 year old bones, would contribute to understanding where the first Vanuatu people came from.
Now, 14 painstaking years after it started, it is world news. Step-by-step the mystery of the ancients of Vanuatu and the Remote Oceania has become a lot clearer, much speculation thrown out the window. It is a complex history of not one but many migrations and we’ll never know all the details, but one previously not published story can be found in the box accompanying this article. The remarkable scientific understanding was only made possible by the joint work of predominantly three separate disciplines, linguistics, archaeology and genetics, humbly starting with language almost 250 years ago. During the last two weeks some of the most well-known and prestigious science journals have picked up the story, emphasizing different aspects of it as established and released by major institutions which jumped onto the bandwagon, to contribute and be part of deciphering the unique history, using specific techniques essential to removing contamination with modern DNA from experiments.
It confirms that Vanuatu is not just the world’s richest country in languages per capita which is old hat, but also central to the only region in the world known to history that has retained an original language after a massive but slow infiltration of others – two world records, but unfortunately not allowed as part of the Pacific Mini Games, but Guinness Book of Records should be OK. The last work, as reported in the latest publication from Current Biology, has been a true multidisciplinary effort by 30 senior scientists from 18 institutions and the truth could not have been unravelled by any other means. The issue of the esteemed scientific journal dated April 2 2018 is providing new detail, further analysing the ancient DNA over the entire time span of human occupation in Vanuatu. Another version of the latest work also appears in Nature, and Max Planck Institute’s Nature Ecology & Evolution and the story is recapped all over.
Multidisciplinary academic studies have long been frowned upon as peripheral and unimportant, while at the same time it has been realized that the boundaries between disciplines can be very fertile. Fifty year ago in a university I was told that it was like farming. Where the fences are established between fields, where there has not been any ploughing or planting, the ground is undisturbed, un-depleted and the soil rich, but it is often hard to get at it in any practical way, not worth the trouble. However, in this case it was well worth it – the times are changing.
Austronesian ancestors began their migration from Southeast Asia into the Pacific in ocean sailing craft many thousands of years ago. Their secret was the specialised outrigger canoe, which is characterised by the addition of lateral support floats which stabilise the main hull. This innovation, says Dr Posth of the Max Planck institute, “allowed them to cover immense distances of the ocean”. Equally remarkable was the navigation by the “voyaging stars” and all other means used to find the way without a compass. To quote K.R. Howe in Vaka Moana, a touch edited: Voyages of the Ancestors: “Austronesian sailors began their explorations from Southeast Asia at least 5000 years ago. For thousands of subsequent years they had the world’s only blue-water maritime technology and navigational knowledge. After Vanuatu there must have been further technological advancements to the initial outrigger canoe design, as over the last 2000-year period they covered the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to as far as Easter Island and probably the Americas, and they crossed the Indian Ocean to at least as far as Madagascar and probably Africa.” They also settled in Micronesian islands. The first Europeans who ventured into the South Pacific were amazed at the size and speed of the double hulled or outrigged canoes which came in a variety of styles with the larger ones able to carry hundreds of people, which at special times sailed in large fleets of up to a hundred vessels of all sizes. Early westerners in the South Pacific have described in writing some 5,000 warriors travelling together in a immense canoe armada (reference here to European sources since Polynesians did not have any written language).
The result of this maritime mobility has now been further documented by the fresh article in Current Biology “as a series of dramatic genetic shifts associated with consistently high human mobility throughout a total of at least four distinct streams of migration and admixture.” The newcomers mixed with the locals, sometimes as in the Emai story in the box by a large all male war party killing the local males and taking over the women and children, but the ways the DNA mixture happened was likely of a large variety.
Vanuatu’s original settlers
We don’t know what happened to the original Vanuatu population, but we know that they were not just formidable seafarers but farmers, gardeners some would say, and when they first arrived the land and the near shore was teeming with life. There were land turtles, land crocodiles and a myriad of birds soon to be extinct. These animals did not have a healthy fear of man and were presumably delicious to eat. To find new land was to hit the jack-pot with also the nearby seas teaming with life, and in their voyaging canoes they carried seeds and seed plants to start their new traditional gardens, as well as chicken and (later) pig, while the rat was a stow-away A DNA study of ancient chicken bone published in America 2014 support the early human story presented here.
Once the “roads” were known, others of the same Lapita people (named after archaeological pottery finds first in New Caledonia then everywhere where he first settlers had been) no doubt came after, since they now had the ocean-going technology, some of which continued further afar to discover new virgin paradise islands. Then after some 500 years the Lapita people had all but vanished in Vanuatu and trade between Near and Remote Oceania ceased. Speculation in history seldom gets it right but we know that Homo sapiens are bipolar animas who are capable of incredibly violent behaviour towards “them” while at the same time be very caring to “us,” it all being dependant on the culture and environment people are living in.
Dozens of thousands of years ago there were several other human species in the world, the most well-known being the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. As the Homo sapiens expanded their territory they disappeared, but a little of their DNA can be found in modern people, Denisovan genes particularly in Melanesians which also have Neanderthal DNA. The Lapita people disappeared from Vanuatu, but a little of their DNA remained in the waves of Papuans which followed.
The DNA evidence in Vanuatu does not indicate a simple event massive take-over, but few details are known of what happened on the ground after Melanesians with Papuan genes presumably learned blue water navigation and also became ocean going. We just know there was a massive genetic change. But the ancestors of the original people which disappeared, or almost disappeared, started some 1,000 years later to reappear into Vanuatu, DNA indicating some from Polynesians arriving back from Remote Oceania. That could have happened in different ways, but one such occurrence has been documented, and I stumbled upon it 35 years ago.
The first to work out where the Remote Oceania people came from
Ironically, one man came surprisingly close to the reality of the old migration almost 250 years ago, and it is an interesting story in itself. He was a pioneering naturalist on James Cook’s second voyage of discovery to the Pacific (1772–1775), Johann Reinhold Forster, doing amongst other things what is now called linguistic work, long the only discipline charting people movements with some accuracy. He suggested that the similarity of the languages spoken in Polynesia and Vanuatu (where the tongue in Vanuatu had evolved to many different Austronesian languages), reflected a comparatively shallow time-depth since their dispersal. Forster’s seminal comparative study of Austronesian languages identified the lowland region of the Philippines, in Island Southeast Asia, as the ultimate source for the Polynesian languages and proposed a long-distance migration from there by the ancestors of today’s Vanuatu and Polynesian speakers. This appeared to be the only explanation for the striking difference in language base that he observed between the peoples of the central Pacific and those of the intervening Northern Melanesian and Papuan region.
Incidentally Captain Cook found Vanuatu in 1774 teeming with people and not friendly. Approaching Malakula in the evening from the South, the island’s mountains were “lit up like a Christmas three” with fires. I have sailed towards South Malakula in the evening and the mountains were pitch dark, not a fire to be seen. Also Louis de Bougainville who preceded Captain Cook by a few years wrote about a massive unfriendly populations, for example estimating Gaua Island (named Santa Maria Island by Quiros in 1606) to have 100,000 inhabitants – today it has less than 3,000. The ridiculous high number must have been by extrapolation visual coastal population and near inland over the whole island. Gaua was thick with villages.
Yet the well-recognised historian Beaglehole’s description of Forster, from editing James Cook’s journals of exploration and writing an acclaimed biography of Cook, is highly damning of the scientist.
“There is nothing that can make him other than one of the Admiralty’s vast mistakes. From first to last on the voyage, and afterwards, he was a nightmare. One hesitates, in fact, to lay out his characteristics, lest the portrait should seem simply caricature. Dogmatic, humourless, suspicious, pretentious, contentious, censorious, demanding, rheumatic, he was a problem from any angle.”
Let us just say that Captain Cook and Forster didn’t get along and Foster had social problem in England as well, was never able to fit into the 18-th century British society, but according to his biographer Michael Hoare and expert on Forster, he was a brilliant scientist for the age. “He became the first person ever to publicly teach natural history in England, in one of the country’s most progressive educational establishments, Warrington Academy. He was consulted by Oxford philologists, patronised by leading politicians, scientists and antiquaries. His intellectual accomplishments stood out. reputedly mastering 17 languages, living and dead; was learned in philology, ancient geography and Egyptology; and knew much about man, civilised and primitive.” After years of academic excellence but without social acceptance, he went in triumph to Germany, to become an appreciated professor of natural history, mineralogy and medicine at the University of Halle.
At the time of his death he was called the ‘patriarch’ of geography in Europe and was widely recognised as one of the most able naturalists. His influence on German science and scholarship was considerable. There was not one continent to which he did not devote some scholarly work.
Vindication after almost 250 years
Until recently Forster’s theory was largely forgotten amongst general researchers of Pacific people movement. To many it didn’t make sense, only linguists hanging on to the old ideas. It was believed that the first people to reach Vanuatu had picked up Papuan genes on the way, while others assumed that it had been a slow dribbling of immigration to Vanuatu from the neighbouring southern Solomon Islands, but the very careful and advanced DNA work on the ancient bones carried out now in well-known highly credible institutions has shown that those theories can be thrown out. The final words come from departments in Europe and America who have all contributed with pieces of the puzzle to establish the facts.
Forster’s ancient theory proved largely correct, but with many complications. The old indigenous people from Taiwan, having largely East Asian ancestry, but of a genotype which no longer exist in unmixed form, is the farthest away identified origin of the original Vanuatu people which landed here some 3,000 years ago, after having settled in the Philippines but then by-passed the tens of thousands of year earlier settled New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago and the Northern Solomon Islands, with minimal admixture of DNA while passing these places. Having arrived in Vanuatu the newcomers remained largely undisturbed for only a relatively short time, less than half a millennium, while Vanuatu became the natural gateway for the Lapita people to proceed to the Remote Pacific Islands, the settlements eventually stretching east to Easter Island (Papa Nui), North to Hawaii and South to New Zealand – (one of the last places on Earth reached by humans), making up the so called triangle of East Polynesia. Then people in Vanuatu was then gradually being replaced by others of almost entirely Papuan ancestry, arriving in a stream to Vanuatu that was well established there at around 2,300 years ago.
The Papuan DNA continued to flow out to Polynesia, out over an area larger than that of the United States and with some 1,000 scattered islands, but from different sources, documenting a third stream of migration from Near to Remote Oceania. The fact that the new-comers to Vanuatu learned and adopted the existing Austronesian language rather than retaining their own Papuan tongue is remarkable since for the dramatic change in the DNA there must have been a lot of people arriving carrying the Papuan’s genes, but we don’t know when within a 600 year window the Papuans got to Vanuatu. The team led by David Reich of Harvard Medical School suggests the original population was almost completely replaced by Papuans by around 2,300 years ago. But the other team, co-led by Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, suggests the Papuans mixed into the original settler population gradually.
Throughout history there are no parallel, conquerors and mass migrations always kept their old language, but in Vanuatu the original settlers language continued, albeit with modification over time so that eventually it became 136 different languages in Vanuatu, several endangered with just a small number of speakers, but all from the same basic Austronesian language group. Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School, said the region had a “tremendous” range of human diversity, adding that Vanuatu itself had an “extraordinary diversity of languages” in a relatively small area. In present day Vanuatu people continue to speak languages descended from those spoken by the initial Austronesian inhabitants as opposed to any Papuan language of the incoming migrants.
The demographic history suggested by the extensive DNA analysis provides really strong support for the original historical linguistic model, with the early arrival and complex, incremental process of genetic replacement by people from the Bismarck Archipelago and later from the Remote Oceania. The DNA provides a baffling but compelling explanation for the continuity of Austronesian language despite the almost complete replacement of the initial genetic ancestry of Vanuatu. As the islands in eastern Polynesia “filled up” and voyaging continued, some ancestors of the original Vanuatu settler returned in different ways, accidental as we can see in the box or deliberate. What used to be theory is now to a much higher degree accepted as undisputable fact. Without genealogy as nourished and dated by Archaeology the linguistic models and especially timing would have remained hotly debated.
Stumbling on a substantial single back migration from Polynesia to Vanuatu
During the 1980’s some of the airports of Vanuatu was in a much worse shape that they are today, especially in the outer islands. In 1984 the country was just 4 years old and the second serving President of Vanuatu, and thus Head of State, was Fred Karlomoana Timakata. A large man in his early 50’s and hereditary Chief in his small home island of Emai, he had to, from time to time, charter a 6-seat twin engine aircraft for the day, to carry on his chiefly duties in his island. Mobile phones were not known in Vanuatu at that time and by air his island was just 30 minutes away from the capital, so it was all relatively nice and easy.
This time the pilot of the charter plane – a 25 year old twin Piper Comanche – is the author of this article, having special military Air Corps training to land and take off from very small fields, a particular skill perfected flying between small grass airstrips in South America and the Caribbean.
The Emai airport was troublesome, the lawn mowing tractor had been broken for half a year and the locals had tried to keep the field clear with bush knifes. It was hard work under the relentless sun and it had been decided that it would be enough to just clear half the length of the field and half the width of it, leaving the rest to grow back into bush.
The President and his four accompanying men were all full size persons, and for the return to Port Vila they carried a few copra sacks of island produce, yam, taro, cassava and kava roots. The aircraft was heavy and the pilot prepared for a short field take off procedure, getting off the ground as soon as possible. With the engines roaring at maximum power before releasing the brakes the machine left the rough ground well before the end of cleared field.
Just then, without warning, the plane started to drift to the left, pointing towards the side-wall of forest. With the short field low speed take off technique used, both engines were required to keep the aircraft going straight, and now the left engine had lost power. To also decrease the power on the right engine would not solve the problem of clearing the tall forest at the end of the runway. Within split seconds the pilot cut both engines and put the machine down. Without power the landing gear touched down immediately, but now the left side overgrown part of the field was under the machine. A bush stump, the size of a small arm, caught the left landing gear and bent it, but it also slowed the aircraft effectively. With man-high bush all around the plane stopped and it was eerily quiet. It took a while before anybody said anything. The aircraft was intact, apart from the bent left landing gear, so there was no danger of fire. It all happened so fast the passengers including the President didn’t even have the time to be really scared.
Later it was determined that the Piper’s fuel selector was unsatisfactory designed in such a way that it could not be drained from condensed water, and during the rapid take-off that water in the bottom of the selector had found its way into the left engine, severely reducing the power. There was a Civil Aviation notice on the problem, stipulating that it must be rectified, but that had not been done on that aircraft – “it was too expensive” the owner of the air service explained. One more second on asymmetric power and the plane would have crashed into the forest. The President and all of us was saved with less than a second to spare.
It was late in the day and nothing could be done until the next morning, so the old pickup trucks carried everyone back to the village again, where the President ordered the preparation of Kava. Maybe the incident had not been scary at the time it happened, but thinking of what could have been certainly was shattering. Kava is a good medicine for nerves. The kava was prepared by mashing the roots in a large wooden mortar-and-pestles like arrangement, and to the tunes of the enduring pounding the stories never stopped. It was late, maybe close to midnight and everybody was relaxed, feeling the effects of the drink, when the President told the story of how his great grandmother had been saved from certain death, and in a way also saving the president, although 150 years later. The President’s ancestors arrived in Emai during the early 18-hundreds in a large war canoe. A warring party had set out from Tonga to partake in a major ceremony in the neighbouring Fiji, but in a severe storm was driven off course and missed the Fiji islands, and with 60 starving large powerful men, they eventually made landfall in Emai. As they were not properly made welcome by the locals they soon dispatched of the smaller Melanesian men and took over the women and their gardens. Trade winds, inexperience, not having an experienced proper navigator and not knowing in what direction to sail it prohibited a return to Fiji, so the Polynesians from Tonga remained in Emai, where they settled permanently. This was documented in the 1880’s by a Presbyterian missionary native from Tonga sent to Emai, who was astonished that they spoke the same language as him. The savages he was supposed to turn to civilized Christians were from his home country. The reason for sending Tongans as missionaries to Vanuatu was purely practical; some of the white missionaries that had preceded them were eaten.
When the old Paramount Chief from Tonga died in Emai it was a huge affair. Traditional Polynesian Chiefs are close to the gods and have absolute power over life and death, and when the demigod passed away it was prescribed that he be buried with his 11 wives. The woman destined to follow their husband to the afterlife in “the sacred island in the sky” were heavily doped and tranquilized with strong kava before they were lowered into the large grave, but they were well enough alive to know what was happening. As custom prescribes, the women accepted their fate without complaint, but the youngest wife was a mere child of 12 years and she was sobbing loudly. On she wailed ever louder, until someone took pity of the small girl and pulled her out of the grave. After a lot of quarrel, she was allowed to survive and re-married to the oldest son of the big Chief.
That girl’s granddaughter was to give birth to a boy named Fred, who in his 50’s would become the second acting Honourable President of the Republic of Vanuatu.
The next morning everyone returned to the airport, a little worse for wear. Another charter aircraft came to pick up the President and his party. The damaged Piper Comanche was pulled out of the rubble by hand, a lot of willing hands, and the pilot on his own flow it slowly back to the capital with the injured landing gears not retracted, dangling down in the slipstream.
By Karl Waldeback exclusively for Vila Times