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Maori ancestry traced back to Taiwan

Published: 8:11PM Sunday July 10, 2005 Source: Sunday

According to legend Maori landed on the shores of Aotearoa/New Zealand around 700 years ago from a mythical place called Hawaiki - but research could dramatically alter this theory.

At Victoria University in Wellington, the map of Maori migration is being rewritten. Combining several scientific discoveries, researchers say Austronesian-speaking people left Taiwan about 5000 years ago.

In, what's considered to be a "fast migration" they moved through the Philippines, Indonesia and other Melanesian islands like Papua New Guinea. As they went, there was intermarriage and they reached remote parts of Polynesia some 2500 years ago. Their last push was to New Zealand, about 700 years ago.

Using DNA, radio carbon and computer simulations, Victoria University scientist Adele Whyte of Ngati Kahungunu descent, has worked out that 190 women were in that last push to New Zealand. And there were probably more men, suggesting more than seven waka were used. "That proves it wasn't an accident. It was definitely a planned settlement. They bought plants and animals with them, that's not a fishing trip blown off course.

"It blows out of the water any theories that Maori got here by accident," Whyte says. "Whenever I go onto a marae, the first thing people ask is what is your iwi. I guess this study is like an extension of this. Finding out who our family is... who our cousins out there in the Pacific."

But what if those ancestors stretched to the very edge of the Pacific? Using DNA, Whyte traced female Maori ancestry to east Polynesia and Asia. Whyte has not pinpointed where exactly in Asia, but other scientific research has.

Victoria University biologist Dr Geoff Chambers discovered Maori had just one gene marker for coping with drinking alcohol. When he looked at the same gene markers in tribes who've lived in Taiwan for 6000 years, he found a match. "It turned out, that like the New Zealand Maori they only had one of those markers too," Chambers says. 

Could it be that Hawaiiki, the mythical Maori homeland, is a 4000-year misty memory in the valleys of Taiwan? The trail for the ground zero of Maori genes led the Sunday team high into theTaiwan mountains. 

Bunun, Amis and Yami are three southern indigenous tribes among nine recognised by Taiwan's government. They are fiercely independent and several tribes practiced head-hunting. Descendants of pre-historic travellers, the tribes people were great mountain hunters and seafarers. For thousands of years they kept to their tribal lands and until recently, they rarely mixed with other tribes or other nationalities. Their language part of the Austronesian-tongue, their genes preserved, but their culture now struggling to survive.

Research into DNA sequencing is being done by Morrocan-born Jean Trejaut. He's been able to accurately pinpoint the southern Taiwanese tribal links with Maori, in particular the Amis people from east coast of Taiwan - the closest genetic match to Maori located beside Bunan territory.

Robert Kaiwai, who works in Taiwan for New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said he felt a powerful bond with people from Tawain's indigenous tribes when he travelled to the south.