New Zealand: Pacific people spread from Taiwan

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jan 27 16:12:39 UTC 2009

Pacific people spread from Taiwan
Friday, 23 January 2009, 10:20 am
Press Release: Auckland University

Pacific people spread from Taiwan

New research into language evolution suggests most Pacific populations
originated in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Scientists at The
University of Auckland have used sophisticated computer analyses on
vocabulary from 400 Austronesian languages to uncover how the Pacific
was settled.  "The Austronesian language family is one of the largest
in the world, with 1200 languages spread across the Pacific," says
Professor Russell Gray of the Department of Psychology. "The
settlement of the Pacific is one of the most remarkable prehistoric
human population expansions. By studying the basic vocabulary from
these languages, such as words for animals, simple verbs, colours and
numbers, we can trace how these languages evolved. The relationships
between these languages give us a detailed history of Pacific

"Our results use cutting-edge computational methods derived from
evolutionary biology on a large database of language data," says Dr
Alexei Drummond of the Department of Computer Science. "By combining
biological methods and linguistic data we are able to investigate
big-picture questions about human origins".  The results, published in
the latest issue of the prestigious journal Science, show how the
settlement of the Pacific proceeded in a series of expansion pulses
and settlement pauses. The Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200
years ago. Before entering the Philippines, they paused for around a
thousand years, and then spread rapidly across the 7,000km from the
Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After
settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for
another thousand years, before finally spreading further into
Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter

"We can link these expansion pulses to the development of new
technology, such as better canoes and social techniques to deal with
the great distances between islands in Polynesia," says Research
Fellow Simon Greenhill. "Using these new technologies the
Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the
Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever. This suggests
that technological advances have played a major role in the spread of
people throughout the world."  The research was funded by the New
Zealand Royal Society Marsden fund. The database of Austronesian basic
vocabulary can be accessed at:

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