DNA solves the puzzle of Polynesia

When, in 1769, the English navigator Captain James Cook sailed to Tahiti under Admiralty orders to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, he naturally wondered how the original inhabitants had managed to reach the island across hundreds of miles of open ocean. A clue came from Tupaia, a Tahitian prince who joined Cook's ship and accompanied him on the rest of his epic voyage. Wherever they went, to other islands and even to New Zealand, Tupaia not only resembled the indigenous people in appearance but he also spoke the same language and henceforth acted as Cook's interpreter. 

These striking similarities hinted at a common origin for the Polynesian people. This remained a puzzle until the famous 1947 voyage by the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl on board the raft Kon-Tiki hoping to prove a South American origin of the Polynesians. The contrary view was that the Polynesians had set out from the opposite direction, from Southeast Asia.

There followed an unresolved, often bitter conflict which was finally settled by DNA in 2005. I collected samples from all over Polynesia and the results were astonishing. There were only two mitochondrial lineages throughout Polynesia, from Hawaii in the North to New Zealand in the South and these originated in Taiwan. Sadly for Heyerdahl and his many fans, he was wrong but his voyage was nevertheless a great adventure.