Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

Geneticists have begun using old bones to make sweeping claims about the distant past. But their revisions to the human story are making some scholars of prehistory uneasy.


A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.

In late 2003, while clearing land just above the seaside, a bulldozer driver found a broken piece of pottery in the rubble. The villagers of Vanuatu often happen upon shards of timeworn ceramic, which spark an idly mythical curiosity; they’re said to be fragments of Noah’s Ark, or the original Ten Commandments, or the burst water vessels of powerful ancestral spirits. These shards are often left alone, but word in this particular case traveled quickly, and the artifact soon found its way to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and National Museum, where Stuart Bedford, a New Zealand archaeologist who had studied local pot shards for years, was called in to inspect it. He immediately recognized its distinctive pattern — “dentate stamping,” an ancient technique so named because it looked as though some tiny-toothed creature had bitten an intricate pattern into the ceramic — and understood that this pottery coincided with the very first movement of ancient peoples into the South Seas.

Bedford rushed to the site of the discovery, an old colonial coconut plantation that the bulldozer had been clearing for use as a prawn farm. Further burrowing turned up not only more pottery but also tools of obsidian and a great cache of human bones, which had lain undisturbed and unusually well preserved over thousands of years. The site was soon identified as the oldest and largest prehistoric cemetery ever found in the Pacific. Everything at the site indicated a founding colony — first arrivals to the shores of uninhabited islands. Teouma was, according to Bedford, “unlike anything anyone had ever seen, or was likely to see, in this part of the world ever again.”

Archaeologists hoped the bones might help provide a clue to the abiding mystery of how anybody had gotten to these far-off coastlines in the first place. Vanuatu is a volcanic archipelago of more than 80 islands littered in an extended slingshot shape across an 800-mile arc of the South Pacific. Europeans first heard of its existence in 1606, when a Portuguese navigator stopped through on a brief but violent imperial errand for the Spanish crown. The islands were largely left to their own devices until the end of the 18th century, when French and British ships arrived to plant their own flags. The two countries ruled the archipelago as a joint colony, called the Condominium of the New Hebrides, until independence was achieved in 1980. National coherence remains a work in progress. By some measures, Vanuatu is per capita the most linguistically diverse country on the planet: Its quarter-million citizens, predominantly the native ni-Vanuatu, speak as many as 140 different indigenous languages and maintain an astonishing variety of cultural practices. A meaningful national identity has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt. Above all, however, the ni-Vanuatu are bound together by the fact of the country’s nautical isolation: Their nearest neighbors are hundreds of miles in any direction.

It is the peculiar geography of this isolation that made the Teouma site so significant. Many of the islands of the South Pacific are much farther-flung: Easter Island makes Vanuatu look like an Australian exurb. But with one very small exception — the tiny eastern outliers of the Solomon Islands — Vanuatu offers the first solid ground on the far side of a major but invisible maritime boundary. On the west side of that border is a string of archipelagoes called Near Oceania: islands chained to one another (and to the rest of the world) by lines of sight. Prehistoric peoples, after tens of thousands of years of travel by foot from Africa, had arrived at the end of Southeast Asia and hopscotched their way forward via short sea outings, presumably crossing the narrow channels they encountered on crude watercraft. Finally, however, some 40,000 years ago, their path was decisively blocked by open ocean. In front of them, across more than 200 miles of empty sea, was the vast aquatic wilderness of Remote Oceania.

That border marked the absolute limit of human expansion for tens of thousands of years, until at last someone sailed out across the naval event horizon and into the unknown. This first traversal was one of the greatest and most courageous passages in human prehistory. The peopling of Remote Oceania — an obscure exodus that easily ranks among the signal triumphs of the ancient world — has inspired awe and vexation for generations. In the mid-20th century, archaeologists came to identify these first voyagers with a set of jars and tools unique to the region, the “Lapita cultural complex,” and determined that they crossed the boundary into Remote Oceania some 3,000 years ago. Further details were presumed lost to history.

But in 2014, Bedford got another surprise call, this time from a researcher affiliated with a genetics team at Harvard. A small group of pioneering lab scientists had found ways to isolate and analyze DNA from ancient bones, methods potent enough to inspire a wholesale revision of our knowledge about ancient peoples. The Harvard operation, which was then preparing a landmark paper about European origins, now intended to visit their attention upon the South Pacific, and they wanted to know whether Bedford might facilitate access to the Teouma remains. Bedford agreed, and over the next four years, the Harvard team used the DNA they found to present a radical new story about Remote Oceania’s first settlers.

Bedford and I met last summer in the hilly and sedate capital of Port-Vila, outside the towering thatched A-frame of the national museum. He is tall and friendly, with a square head, short brown hair, a rancher’s open gait and the incessant squint of someone in perpetual communion with the near-hopeless complication of human affairs. We climbed into his white Land Cruiser and drove to a tidy village compound outside town. There, Bedford embraced the local chief, Silas Alben, who led us through village gardens of banana and tuber to a high limestone cliff with a sprawling view of the Teouma site.

Silas Alben, the chief of the village that includes the Teouma site, where the ancient remains were found.CreditDavid Maurice Smith for The New York Times

As we shared the sweating neon flesh of a machete-split papaya, Bedford, now affiliated with the Australian National University, ran through all the reasons that the sheltered cove far below — just then rippling beneath a late-afternoon rainbow — would have made an inviting stage for the encounter of an ancient people with a primeval place. For whoever arrived in those first canoes, these empty islands offered a bounty of unfished reefs, unoccupied land and naïve, slow-moving animal prey; for those who now studied those first colonists, their arrival represented an important inflection point in human expansion and development. And now, the science of “paleogenomics” had coaxed new stories of ancient lives from the Teouma bones.

Source: New York Times

See the rest of the evidence on the New York Times

David Aragorn

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