A research team led by scientists at the University of Adelaide identified a unique genetic marker in chicken bones found in archaeological digs on islands such as Rapa Nui (Easter Island). They then used this marker to study the origins and dispersal of ancestral Polynesian chickens, in the process reconstructing the early migration of the people who transported them.
The marker was only found in chickens on Pacific and Southeast Asian islands, suggesting that there was no pre-Columbian contact between Polynesians and South American populations. The research also helped to explain why previous studies had found evidence of contact. ‘We were able to re-examine bones used in previous studies that had linked ancient Pacific and South American chickens, suggesting early human contact, and found that some of the results were contaminated with modern chicken DNA, which occurs at trace levels in many laboratory components,’ said one of the study’s authors, Alan Cooper. ‘We were able to show that the ancient chicken DNA provided no evidence of any pre-Columbian contact between these areas.
‘Remarkably, our study also shows that the original Polynesian lineages appear to have survived on some isolated Pacific islands, despite the introduction of European domestic animals across the Pacific in the last few hundred years,’ he added.
This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine