anthropology: rats help track human migration patterns

Thanks to genetic analysis and the rat-eating habits of ancient Polynesians, researchers are determining the routes prehistoric humans used to colonize the Western Pacific. The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) is believed to have been a food source for the Lapita, a seafaring culture that existed about 3500 years ago and thought to be the ancestors of Polynesians and other Pacific islanders. In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences Online Early Edition, E. Matisoo-Smith and J. H. Robins of New Zealand’s University of Auckland note that since the rat does not swim, the only way it could have reached any of the islands was by human canoe, and therefore an analysis of the rat’s DNA could shed light on the origins of both the Polynesians and the Lapita peoples. The researchers compared mitochondrial DNA taken from ancient skeletal remains and modern rats found in the Pacific and Island Southeast Asia. Their results suggest a slower and more complicated pattern of human migration than previously proposed. The researchers write, “Integrating these results with those from other fields such as archeology, comparative linguistics, and molecular biology of human populations will be the only way we can fully understand the complex prehistory of this region.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 6/08/2004.
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