Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is located in the easternmost corner of the Polynesian Triangle. It is one of the most isolated locations on Earth inhabited by humans.
Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that the island was first colonized by Polynesians around AD 1200. After settling on the island, they famously built giant stone platforms and over 900 moais.
The first known European visitor to the island was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived in 1722.
While it may have taken weeks for Rapanui to reach even the closest nearby islands, there are hints of their early contact with South Americans.
For example, there is evidence for the presence of plants native to the Americas on Easter Island, including sweet potato and bottle gourd, long before the European discovery of the island.
Now a genome-wide analysis of 27 native Rapanui confirms that the island people made contact with Native South Americans 19 to 23 generations ago, sometime between AD 1280 and 1495.
The lead author of the study, Dr Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, suggests one of two scenarios: either South Americans sailed to the island or Rapanui travelers sailed to the continent and back.
“It seems more likely that the Rapanui successfully made the trip back and forth, given simulations presented in previous studies showing that all sailing voyages heading intentionally east from the island would always reach South America, with a trip lasting from two weeks to approximately two months,” Dr Malaspinas said.
“On the other hand, the trip from the continent to Easter Island is much more challenging, which would have made it likely to fail or miss the island completely.”
J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar et al. Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Suggest Pre-European Admixture with Native Americans. Current Biology, published online October 23, 2014; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.057
Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas et al. Two ancient human genomes reveal Polynesian ancestry among the indigenous Botocudos of Brazil. Current Biology, published online October 23, 2014; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.078