A genetic study, published in the journal Current Biology, reveals these ancient people had significant contact with Native American populations hundreds of years before the first Westerners reached the island in 1722.
The Rapa Nui people created a unique culture best known for the 900 monumental head-and-torso stone statues known as moai erected around Easter Island. The culture flourished starting around 1200 until falling into decline by the 16th century.
Genetic data on 27 Easter Island natives indicated that interbreeding between the Rapa Nui and native people in South America occurred roughly between 1300 and 1500.
“We found evidence of gene flow between this population and Native American populations, suggesting an ancient ocean migration route between Polynesia and the Americas,” says the study’s lead author, geneticist Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
The genetic evidence indicates either that Rapa Nui people travelled the 3700 kilometres to South America or that Native Americans journeyed to Easter Island. The researchers believe it probably was the Rapa Nui people making the arduous ocean round trips.
“It seems most likely that they voyaged from Rapa Nui to South America and brought South Americans back to Rapa Nui and admixed with them,” says Mark Stoneking, a geneticist with Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who collaborated on a related study of Brazil’s indigenous Botocudo people.
“So it will be interesting to see if in further studies any signal of Polynesian, Rapa Nui ancestry can be found in South Americans.”
In making their way to South America and back, the Rapa Nui people may have spent perilous weeks in wooden outrigger canoes.
The researchers conclude that the intermixing occurred 19 to 23 generations ago. They say Rapa Nui people are not believed to have started mixing with Europeans until much later in the 19th century.
Malaspinas says the genetic ancestry of today’s Rapa Nui people is roughly 75 per cent Polynesian, 15 per cent European and 10 per cent Native American.