Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania


Recent genomic analyses show that the earliest peoples reaching Remote Oceania—associated with Austronesian-speaking Lapita culture—were almost completely East Asian, without detectable Papuan ancestry. However, Papuan-related genetic ancestry is found across present-day Pacific populations, indicating that peoples from Near Oceania have played a significant, but largely unknown, ancestral role. Here, new genome-wide data from 19 ancient South Pacific individuals provide direct evidence of a so-far undescribed Papuan expansion into Remote Oceania starting ~2,500 yr bp, far earlier than previously estimated and supporting a model from historical linguistics. New genome-wide data from 27 contemporary ni-Vanuatu demonstrate a subsequent and almost complete replacement of Lapita-Austronesian by Near Oceanian ancestry. Despite this massive demographic change, incoming Papuan languages did not replace Austronesian languages. Population replacement with language continuity is extremely rare—if not unprecedented—in human history. Our analyses show that rather than one large-scale event, the process was incremental and complex, with repeated migrations and sex-biased admixture with peoples from the Bismarck Archipelago.

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Fig. 1: Spatial and genetic distribution of ancient and present-day individuals.
Fig. 2: Admixture proportions of Papuan- versus Lapita-related ancestry in ancient and present-day populations using 1,240 K genome-wide data.
Fig. 3: Demographic history of ancient Vanuatu individuals.


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We thank the communities in Malakula and Efate in Vanuatu who participated in this study, and particularly all sample donors. We are grateful to M. Stoneking, I. Pugach and C.-C. Wang for comments, and to G. Brandt, R. Bianco and technicians at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History for laboratory support. This research was supported by the Max Planck Society. Archaeological investigations on Malakula, Vanuatu were funded by the Sasakawa Pacific Island Nations Fund, the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Fast-Start 9011/3602128; 04-U00–007), a National Geographic Scientific Research grant (7738–04) and an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant (DP0880789). Investigations on Tanna, Vanuatu were supported by an Australian Research Council Discover Project grant (DP160103578). F.V. is funded by CNRS-UMR 7041, H.B. is funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Standard Grant UOO0917) and a University of Otago Research Grant, and A.P. is funded by European Research Council Starting Grant ‘Waves’ (ERC758967).

Author information

F.V., S.B., R.S., H.B., R.K., G.R.C., C.R., J.F., T.M., J.M., J.G. and L.K. contributed archaeological material. H.C., K.W.K. and A.P. contributed the 27 present-day Vanuatu samples. J.Z., F.P. and P.R. contributed isotopic data and radiocarbon date calibrations. M.W. and R.D.G. contributed linguistic interpretation. F.V., S.B., J.M., F.P. and P.R. contributed text in the Supplementary Information. K.J.R., K.A., S.J.O., A.V.S.H. and A.J.M. contributed geographical labels for the ref. 32 samples. C.P. and K.N. performed ancient DNA laboratory work. C.P., K.N., C.J. and A.P. performed population genetic analyses. C.P., K.N., H.C. and A.P. wrote the paper with input from F.V., S.B., H.B., M.W., F.P., P.R., C.J., R.D.G. and J.K. C.P. and A.P. created the figures. The study was conceived and coordinated by C.P., K.N., H.C., R.D.G., J.K. and A.P.

Correspondence to Cosimo Posth or Heidi Colleran or Johannes Krause or Adam Powell.

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Posth, C., Nägele, K., Colleran, H. et al. Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 731–740 (2018).

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