Who were these people? And how did they live? DNA analysis reveals both important information about where they came from and notable social customs.

We know that about 50,000 years ago, the first groups of humans ventured across to Australia, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. But it wasn’t until 3,500 years ago that advanced canoes were built that would allow them to reach remote islands in Oceania. Much about these early navigators, however, is unknown. But thanks a new study we learn more about these heroic people and their lives.


The first navigators managed to reach the islands of Micronesia, among others. This region, located just north of the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, consists of two thousand small islands. Somewhat known islands that are part of Micronesia are Guam, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Genetic Research

In the study, researchers looked at the DNA of 164 people who lived on these remote islands in the Pacific Ocean between 2800 and 300 years ago. They then compared this DNA with that of 112 people who inhabit the islands today. Surprisingly, this genetic research uncovers closely guarded secrets of the world’s first navigators. “Learning more about cultural patterns through genetic data is an unexpected gift,” said study researcher David Reich.


The researchers studied the DNA of early navigators from Guam, Vanuatu and Tonga, among others, who lived about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. And that leads to a striking discovery. The analysis shows that their mitochondrial DNA – which humans inherit only from their biological mothers – differed almost completely, while sharing much more of the rest of their DNA. This suggests that the migrants who left their own community and married into a new one were mainly male.

Matrilocal society

What does this tell us about the first navigators? According to the researchers, the results imply that the inhabitants of the islands in the Pacific Ocean had a matrilocal society. This means that after marriage, women always stayed in their own community, while men left their community to live with their wives. “Today, traditional Pacific communities have both matrilocal and patrilocal (the opposite of matrilocal, where women join their husbands’ community, ed.) societies,” Reich said. “There is therefore an ongoing debate about what was common in ancestral populations. Our results now suggest that matrilocality was the norm.”


In addition, the researchers reveal interesting information about exactly where the first seafarers came from. It has long been a mystery what the routes people took to arrive on the islands. But in the study, the researchers uncover five migratory flows to a subregion in Micronesia. Of the five migratory flows, three can be traced to East Asia, one to Polynesia and one to mainland New Guinea. And that creates a lot of clarity about the origin of the people who live in Micronesia today.

The study provides new insights into the ancestry and culture of the world’s first navigators, including the family structure, social customs and ancestral populations of the people who still inhabit remote islands in the Pacific today. Despite the research solving existing mysteries, researchers are continuing their studies. “Any scientific paper raises as many new questions as it answers,” Reich says. “There are still many open questions about the Pacific Islands and we still have plenty of surprises to discover.”