Researchers have stepped back thousands of years in time to make major discoveries about the culture regarded as ancient ancestors of Polynesians today.

Two just-published papers form the most comprehensive study ever conducted into the origins of people in Vanuatu – regarded as a geographic gateway from Asia to the Remote Pacific.

Australian National University (ANU)-led research drew on a combination of DNA analyses of ancient skeletons and modern samples, along with archaeological evidence, to put together a complete timeline of migration to the island nation.

The results confirmed that Vanuatu's first people were of the Lapita culture and arrived 3000 years ago from South East Asia, followed by Papuan arrivals from the island of New Britain, in the Bismarck Archipelago just to the east of New Guinea and part of the nation of Papua New Guinea.


The ANU's Dr Stuart Bedford said this was the first time researchers had been able to look at a full sequence of DNA samples from the Vanuatu islands.

"We've been able to track a complete genetic timeline at regular intervals, starting with the first inhabitants right through to modern times," Bedford said.

"The very first generation of people into Vanuatu are primarily Asian, then very quickly you see a series of migrations of Papuan people from the Bismarck Archipelago who had been living in the region for around 50,000 years."

That trend continued over the next 3000 years right up until today, as the genetic ancestry was mostly replaced by that of Papuan migrants.

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"The people of Vanuatu today, like many peoples of the Pacific, can claim a dual heritage."

For the first time, we could now determine exactly where these Papuan migration groups came from, fellow ANU researcher Professor Matthew Spriggs said.

Burial excavations on Vanuatu's Uripiv Island. Photo / Supplied
Burial excavations on Vanuatu's Uripiv Island. Photo / Supplied

"They came from New Britain, a Papuan island just east of New Guinea - this makes sense. New Britain has some of the earliest known Lapita sites.


"So what we think happened is that Lapita people after arriving in New Britain moved fairly directly on to Vanuatu and encouraged some of the local populations already in place on New Britain to move there as well."

Bedford said the strength of the Lapita culture was evident in the continuity of the language.

 A skull in a Lapita pot from an excavation in Vanuatu. Photo / Supplied
A skull in a Lapita pot from an excavation in Vanuatu. Photo / Supplied

"The Lapita people who originally came to Vanuatu from South East Asia spoke a form of Austronesian," he said.

"That language persisted and over 120 descendant languages continue to be spoken today, making Vanuatu the most linguistically diverse place on Earth per capita.

"This is a unique case, where a population's genetic ancestry was replaced but its languages continued."

Re-tracing the settlement of the Pacific has long been a complex challenge for scientists, but DNA technology has helped fill in some crucial gaps.

An ancient skeleton on the island of Efate. Photo / Supplied
An ancient skeleton on the island of Efate. Photo / Supplied

It was currently assumed voyagers settled Near Oceania sometime between 50,000BC and 25,000BC, before Austronesians left Taiwan around 2000BC and spread through the islands of South East Asia.

Centuries later, around 1500BC, Austronesian seafarers who entered Near Oceania mixed with diverse groups already there, eventually giving birth to the distinct Lapita people, from which arose Polynesian cultures.

Archeaologists believe Maori arrived in Aotearoa around the end of the 13th century.

But less clear was the exact place they'd previously called home - it was perhaps unlikely Hawaiki was a single island.