Linguists chart Man's journey across the Pacific

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The Independent Online

One of the greatest mysteries in human prehistory - how people managed to colonise the islands of the Pacific - may have been solved by linguists.

One of the greatest mysteries in human prehistory - how people managed to colonise the islands of the Pacific - may have been solved by linguists.

Analysis of 77 languages has lent support to a anthropological theory that the colonisation involved a 10-step island-hopping journey from China to Hawaii. The idea is that the migration began in Taiwan about 5,500 years ago, went south through the Philippines and New Guinea, passed east through Fiji andended with the discovery of Hawaii and New Zealand.

Russell Gray and Fiona Jordan of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, decided to compare more than 5,100terms from 77 Austronesian languages to see if they could find factors that might reveal the path of the migratory route.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists said: "Like molecules, languages document evolutionary history. Darwin observed that evolutionary change in languages resembled... biological evolution: inheritance from a common ancestor and convergent evolution operate in both."

Previous linguistic and archaeological studies suggest that the journey from Taiwan to western Polynesia took little more than 2,000 years, a blink of the eye in prehistoric time, which led scientists to call it the "express train" theory.

The linguists found common features in the 77 languages to indicate a 13-step journey. Rebecca Cann of the University of Hawaii says in an accompanying article that the linguists' close fit with the 10-step journey suggests that modern Austronesian languages strongly support the express-train theory. Dr Cann said: "Words do not fossilise. Yet they leave evidence of their evolution in the populations that speak them, in much the same way that genes reveal the evolutionary history of the populations that transmit them."

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