Worlds apart

by Alec Hutchinson / 04 March, 2006
The business of tracing ancestors using DNA is proving to be a cultural minefield that has indigenous groups up in arms. Pacific Island groups say they prefer to rely on oral traditions when it comes to knowing their origins.

Make a sample of blood or saliva, enclose a fee of £360 ($NZ940), and post it to the Oxford Ancestors. It's as simple as that if you want your genetic lineage traced back to real ancestors - "Clan Mothers" and "Clan Fathers" - who existed tens of thousands of years ago.

"It's very straightforward," says Bryan Sykes, founder of the project and professor of human genetics at Oxford University. "Every cell in our bodies contains DNA. A few hundred cells and that's enough for us to get the DNA out and enough for us to work with."

Yet, the business is also a cultural minefield. Sykes's work has caused a stir, specifically in the Pacific, where he has traced the contested migration path of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. And it all happened because he rode into a tree.

On his first trip to the Pacific, Sykes had an unplanned stopover in Rarotonga. He hired a motorbike for the day, but lost control and hit a palm tree, breaking his shoulder. Stuck on the island for several weeks, he used the opportunity to collect a number of DNA samples. These became the genetic seeds that put Thor Heyerdahl's theory - that Polynesians originally arrived from South America - to the test. "By comparing those mitochondrial fingerprints with those from both America on the one hand and South-east Asia on the other, I knew I would be able to answer that question," he says.

How does it work? Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the London Natural History Museum, explains: "DNA is copied from one generation to the next and sometimes little copying mistakes, or mutations, creep in. If those aren't harmful, they're kept in the DNA pattern and passed on to future generations." By observing and mapping those changes through time, scientists can accurately trace our ancestors. "It's another way of reconstructing our history."

It's the specific signatures of male and female DNA that are most important in tracing lineage. "By investigating the Y chromosome," Stringer says, "we can chart a line of fathers stretching back into the past, while mitochondrial DNA gives us a line of mothers stretching back into the past." And it's not just tracing back to Great Uncle George. DNA goes much further. According to Sykes, any person living today can be traced back to central Africa, to two real people he has labelled "Y chromosome Adam", who lived between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago, and "Mitochondrial Eve", between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.

After promising early results, Sykes returned to the islands to further his research. It revealed that the DNA of Rarotongans held the same genetic signature as the indigenous peoples of Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomons and back to the Philippines, where it finally changed. From there, he traced the ancestral origins to Taiwan, adding an amount of genetic testimony to the large body of existing anthropological and linguistic evidence. "Heyerdahl was wrong," he says. "All Polynesians, and the ancestors of Polynesians, came from South-east Asia."

He cautions that these Polynesian ancestors probably spent centuries in the Philippines after migrating from Taiwan, hence the genetic variation in the region. But once they were there, and had presumably learnt much more about navigation and seafaring, he says, "there isn't much [genetic] difference in what we found all though the islands. It suggests a rapid movement."

Although his research is by no means the final conclusion on the much-debated Taiwan connection, his findings in relation to the rapid migration through the Pacific are harder to argue with. And this, according to Sykes, is an affirmation of Pacific Island cultures, including Maori. "[The] voyages that the first Polynesians made were against the winds and currents, so they were deliberate voyages of discovery. They weren't, as some patronising anthropologists once suggested, just drifting in from South America on the Kon-Tiki ..."

So, how are indigenous peoples responding to the technology? Oprah Winfrey, now claiming to be linked to Zulus, and Quincy Jones have paid to have their DNA traced back to Africa. Universities such as Penn State are offering the service. But the burgeoning trend has hit some snags. Says Yale assistant professor Alondra Nelson: "I've spoke with African Americans who have tried four or five different genetic genealogy companies because they weren't satisfied with the results. They received different results each time and kept going until they got a result they were happy with."

Scientists took it for granted that indigenous peoples would want to know their origins, and were shocked when groups protested. Last April, National Geographic launched its Genographic Project, a five-year endeavour to collect over 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous groups worldwide. As soon as the project was announced, indigenous groups began vociferously objecting. They claimed that not only would the research be contesting centuries of oral history and spiritual belief, but also that the DNA information could be sold to pharmaceutical companies, and the justification of "science" could be used by malicious politicians to undercut indigenous rights.

Paul Reynolds, a post-doctoral fellow at the Auckland University-based National Centre of Research Excellence for Maori Development, told the New Zealand Herald, "Indigenous people aren't stupid. We've been here before. We've had centuries of exploitation by non-indigenous people. This is highly political. It's race-based research, and therefore it can be manipulated and used for political benefit ... This could link straight into what Don Brash wants to hear: that everybody comes from the same place, that we are all common and have common ancestors."

Patrick Thomsen-Noa, former Pacific Island students officer for the Auckland University Students Association and outspoken advocate for Pacific Island issues, is less concerned. "For me, as a Pacific Islander, Samoan to be more specific, our oral traditions and customs are what we hold as our explanations for our creation and origins. Despite what the research comes up with, this will not change. Even if they determine that we all did originate from Africa, the research is not able to account for the way in which we developed our indigenous cultural beliefs and customs."

He suggests that the research will alter nothing about Samoan identity: "Samoa is where we developed as a people and Samoa is where we will continue to thrive. Modern-day science cannot change that." Nor does Thomsen-Noa share Reynolds's political pessimism. "Even a racist, or someone like Don Brash, knows that basing an argument on a science that means very little in terms of how people have developed and placed themselves in the world, is a weak platform."

TV presenter Nathan Rarere, a Maori New Zealander, joined Oscar Kightley for the documentary Made in Taiwan: Nathan and Oscar's Excellent Adventure. It follows the two along the ancestral path of their DNA as drawn up by Sykes and the Oxford Ancestors. Being Maori, Rarere is caught in the middle of the debate. Did discovering his genetic ancestry strengthen or diminish his connection with Maoridom? "I think it made it stronger," he says. Although he understands why some people are worried, he urges that science is reinforcing legends rather than refuting them. "We all know that Maui didn't catch the sun in a net and beat the shit out of it and slow it down, [but] the stories I was told as a kid about coming down in the big canoes ... well, the science proved the legends to be correct ... I don't think that having scientific proof that the Polynesians came from Asia makes me any less Maori, and I don't think it makes anyone else any less Maori. You've got to remember that this all happened 30,000 years ago."

Made in Taiwan: Nathan and Oscar's Excellent Adventure, TV3, Thursday, 8.30pm

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