Using ancient DNA to study the origins and dispersal of ancestral Polynesian chickens across the Pacific.
The human colonization of Remote Oceania remains one of the great feats of exploration in history, proceeding east from Asia across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Human commensal and domesticated species were widely transported as part of this diaspora, possibly as far as South America. We sequenced mitochondrial control region DNA from 122 modern and 22 ancient chicken specimens from Polynesia and Island Southeast Asia and used these together with Bayesian modeling methods to examine the human dispersal of chickens across this area. We show that specific techniques are essential to remove contaminating modern DNA from experiments, which appear to have impacted previous studies of Pacific chickens. In contrast to previous reports, we find that all ancient specimens and a high proportion of the modern chickens possess a group of unique, closely related haplotypes found only in the Pacific. This group of haplotypes appears to represent the authentic founding mitochondrial DNA chicken lineages transported across the Pacific, and allows the early dispersal of chickens across Micronesia and Polynesia to be modeled. Importantly, chickens carrying this genetic signature persist on several Pacific islands at high frequencies, suggesting that the original Polynesian chicken lineages may still survive. No early South American chicken samples have been detected with the diagnostic Polynesian mtDNA haplotypes, arguing against reports that chickens provide evidence of Polynesian contact with pre-European South America. Two modern specimens from the Philippines carry haplotypes similar to the ancient Pacific samples, providing clues about a potential homeland for the Polynesian chicken.