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Genetics: The ancestry of Austronesian-speaking populations

Nature Communications

August 20, 2014

The Austronesian-speaking populations of Island Southeast Asia have been shown to be more closely related to aboriginal Taiwanese people than modern day populations inhabiting mainland Southeast Asia. The study, published this week in Nature Communications, uses genetic data to reconstruct the population history of Austronesians and sheds light on population mixing and past migrations in this region.

The expansion of Austronesian-speaking populations is estimated to have begun approximately four to five thousand years ago and is thought to have roots in Taiwan. However, the ancestry of present day Austronesian populations remains largely unresolved.

David Reich and colleagues have analysed genome-wide genetic markers from individuals spanning 56 populations from Island Southeast Asia in order to examine the exchange of genes that occurred between genetically distinct populations; a process known as admixture.

The authors find that the genetic component of Austronesian speakers can be attributed to four discreet sources, including aboriginal Taiwanese, Thai and New Guinean populations. While a large proportion of this genetic component can be traced back to Taiwan, Western Austronesians were shown to have a strong Austro-Asiatic component. This suggests that Austronesian speakers may have migrated through Vietnam or the Malaysian peninsula, where they mixed with Austro-Asiatic populations on Mainland Southeast Asia before settling in Western Indonesia.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms5689

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