The ancient Polynesian people who lived on Easter Island, who were known as Rapa Nui, were believed to be isolated because of their location. The island is in the middle of the Pacific and 1,100 miles from its closest neighboring island.

It appears, however, that the inhabitants of Easter Island were not as lonely and isolated as previously believed. A new genetic study suggests that these ancient people and South American natives interacted with each other long before the Europeans sailed to the Pacific.

Researchers who conducted the study, published in the journal Current Biology on Oct. 23, contend that the genes of living Easter Islanders offer evidence that there were significant contacts between Polynesians in Easter Island and Native Americans hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Westerners in 1722.

Circumstantial evidence already hinted of such contact, such as Polynesia having crops that were native to the Americas. The new study, which looked at the genomes of 27 living Rapa Nui islanders, offers the first genetic evidence of these events.

The study suggests there was intermixing that occurred between the Rapa Nui people and South Americans, which likely happened between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1500. This means that the people of Rapa Nui may have traveled to South America or the natives from South America traveled to Easter Island.

"We found evidence of gene flow between this population and Native American populations, suggesting an ancient ocean migration route between Polynesia and the Americas," said study researcher Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen's Centre for Geogenetics.

The researchers believe it was probably the Rapa Nui people, also known for carving and erecting the monolithic human figures called Moai around Easter Island, who made the grueling round trips using wooden outrigger canoes.

Malaspinas and colleagues also said that the mixing of the Rapa Nui and South American natives may have happened 19 to 23 generations ago. This finding is based on their study, which showed how the genetic ancestry of the Rapa Nui people of today is about 75 percent Polynesian, 15 percent European and 10 percent Native American.

"We found a mostly Polynesian ancestry among Rapa Nui and detected genome-wide patterns consistent with Native American and European admixture," the researchers wrote. "By considering the distribution of local ancestry tracts of eight unrelated Rapa Nui, we found statistical support for Native American admixture dating to AD 1280-1495 and European admixture dating to AD 1850-1895."

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