Easter Islanders Not as Isolated as Thought
Genetic data suggests travel to and from South America 20-plus generations ago
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 24, 2014 8:12 AM CDT
This undated photo released by Explora en Rapa Nui shows some of the massive Moai statues on Easter Island.   (AP Photo/Explora en Rapa Nui)
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(Newser) – Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is such a remote speck of rock in the Pacific Ocean that it has been nicknamed "navel of the world." Yet a review of genetic data of 27 natives suggests the islanders made contact with outsiders hundreds of years before the first Europeans arrived from Holland in 1722. In fact, the Rapa Nui people appear to have had significant intermixing with Native Americans as far back as the late 13th century, researchers report in the journal Current Biology. The findings indicate "an ancient ocean migration route between Polynesia and the Americas," says the study's lead author. Though the nearly 2,500-mile journey would have been perilous in their wooden outrigger canoes, the researchers say it's more likely the islanders ventured to South America and back than others finding their way to Easter Island, reports Reuters.

Today's Rapa Nui people are genetically about 76% Polynesian, 16% European, and 8% Native American, though the European intermingling dates back only to the 19th century, while the Native American intermingling appears to go back 19 to 23 generations. A separate study also published in Current Biology this week details the genetic makeup of two ancient human skulls from Brazil's indigenous Botocudo tribe. The skulls were genetically Polynesian without any Native American mixing, further suggesting that islanders traveled to the Americas. (Check out the drug that scientists found in the island's soil.)