Vol. 1 Number 1 Micronesian Curriculum Materials Series

Genetic Relationships of Micronesian Populations

In 1994, Koji Lum collected head hair in Micronesia. He used the head hair to obtain DNA samples. Lum’s purpose was to compare the genetic relationships of various Micronesian groups to other Pacific Islanders and Asians and their languages (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 1).

DNA offers a better way to study the relationships among Pacific Islanders. Anthropologists based past studies on linguistics. A study of grammar and word lists allowed researchers to established degrees of correlation between various Pacific Islanders. For example, the Chamoru language is most closely related to Bareic in Sulawesi based on a comparison of standardized word lists (Murdock, 1968, 88). One linguist found that Chamoru has a high percentage of common vocabulary with Maanyan of Borneo and West Futuna in Vanuatu (Russell, PC). Others say that Chamorro is closer to Ilokano and Tagalog in the Philippines. They base their analysis on the grammatical structure (Topping, Ogo, & Dungca, 1975, 3) and not on common vocabulary (Russell, PC). Topping argues that grammatical structure is a better indicator than common vocabulary. Linguists have formulated theories of Pacific Island colonization based on the similarity of languages. P.S. Bellwood, who wrote the definitive work on the peopling of the Pacific, relied heavily on this linguistic evidence.

There is a problem in using the language to predict relations among people. Language is a culturally transmitted and not a biological trait. Just because a native of Hong Kong speaks English does not mean that he or she is necessarily of British descent. In fact it is more likely that he or she is Chinese.

On the other hand, DNA is the genetic material that determines biological inheritance. "Lum examined DNA that is found within mitochondria (mDNA), small cellular bodies that function as the energy factories and storehouses of our cells. Mitochondria are inherited from the body of the mother’s fertilized egg, and are transmitted maternally to the next generation" (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 1). This analysis ignores inheritance from a father.

Lum wanted to find out if the DNA similarities would agree with the linguistic similarities. "For isntance, would there be close mtDNA similarity among all the groups who speak Oceanic Austronesian (OCAN) languages? In Micronesia, OCAN languages include those spoken in the Southwest Islands of Palau, Yap Outer Islands, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Nauru, the Marshalls, and Kiribati. As well, all Polynesian languages are classified as OCAN, as are many languages spoken within Melanesia. In contrast, people from Yap Proper, Palau spoken within Melanesia. In contrast, people from Yap Proper, Palau (other than the Southwest Islands) and the Marianas speak languages that are classified as non-Oceanic Austronesian (AN)" Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 2). Would Chamorus, Palauans, and Yapese mtDNA be closer to AN speakers from Southeast Asia or closer to OCAN-sepaking Micronesians (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 2).?

Lum analyzed the hair of 455 people. He estimated the genetic distances among the various population groups by comparing the mtDNA sequences of each group. He compared the mtDNA of people from GUAM, Rota, Saipan, Palau, the Southwest Islands of Palau, Yap Proper, and Kapingamarangi with those from "479 volunteers from other parts of Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, Australia, Idonesia, the Philippines, mainland Southeast Asia, and East Asia" (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 2).

There was a general mtDNA agreement with linguistic classifications among all the OCAN speakers. But the Western Micronesian AN speakers’ (Yapese and Palauans) mtDNA is most similar to OCAN-speaking Micronesians. The Chamorus were very different. These AN speakers clustered "with a diverse grouping of AN speakers and even with speakers of non-Austronesian languages" (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 5).

"The Chamorro sample has closest mtDNA similarity to two aboriginal Malay groups from western coastal Thailand (Moken and Urak Lawoi). These results are intriguing, as all three groups are non-Oceanic Austronesian (AN) speakers. Surprisingly, the next closest degree of similarity to the Marianas sample is with Japan, then aboriginal Australians, then a sample from Java" (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 5).

What does all this mean? "First, the generally close agreement between mtDNA and linguistic relationships indicates that common historical processes were involved in the dispersal of both maternal lineages of people, and languages that they speak, throughout the Pacific. Fourteen of fifteen Polynesian and Micronesian samples (mostly OCAN-speakers) cluster together and have relatively close mtDNA ties with samples from the Philippines, Borneo, and South China (Canton)" (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 5).

This shows that Micronesians and Polynesians have a southeast Asian homeland. "In contrast, studies based on DNA contributed by both females and males to their offspring generally indicate a greater degree of Melanesian heritage for Polynesians and Micronesians.

The results for Palau and Yap are not so tidy. The "mtDNA and linguistic relationships do not agree? Lack of such agreement can mean a number of things, but mixing of populations – after initial linguistic settlement – springs to mind first. Western Micronesia and Melanesia are regions where a greater amount of such mixing is indicated (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 6).

Chamoru mtDNA is very distinctive when compared to other Micronesians and Polynesians. This suggests that the Marianas have a different settlement history than the rest of Micronesia. Chamorus have not mixed much with other Micronesians. This does not mean that Chamorus are Malays. "What such close mtDNA affinity suggests is tha tChamorros and aboriginal Malays have common maternal ancestors, ‘way back when’. The ‘way back when’ time being before the Chamorros were a distinctively crystallized group, before the colonization of the Marianas by people whose descendants would only later develop the way of living that defined them as "Chamorros". (Lum & Heathcote, 1998, 7).


Bellwood, P.S. "The Colonization of the Pacific: Some Current Hypotheses." In The Colonization of the Pacific: A Genetic Trail. Edited by Adrian V.S. Hill and Susan W. Serjeantson.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Lum, J. Koji and Gary M. Heathcote. "Genetic Relationships of Micronesian Populations: A Project Update." Anthropology Resource & Research Center Non-Technical Report Series, no. 1. Mangilao, Guam: University of Guam, 1998.

Murdock, George P. "Genetic Classification of the Austronesian Languages: A Key to Oceanic

Culture History." In Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific, ed. Andrew P. Vayda.

Garden City, New York: The Natural History Press, 1968.

Olmo, Richard K. Personal Communication, 1998.

Russell, Scott. Personal Communication, 1997.

Topping, Donald, Pedro M. Ogo, and Bernadita C. Dungca. Chamorro-English Dictionary.

Pacific and Asian Linguistic Institute Language Texts: Micronesia. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1975.