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Concept: Austronesian languages


There are two very different interpretations of the prehistory of Island Southeast Asia (ISEA), with genetic evidence invoked in support of both. The “out-of-Taiwan” model proposes a major Late Holocene expansion of Neolithic Austronesian speakers from Taiwan. An alternative, proposing that Late Glacial/postglacial sea-level rises triggered largely autochthonous dispersals, accounts for some otherwise enigmatic genetic patterns, but fails to explain the Austronesian language dispersal. Combining mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Y-chromosome and genome-wide data, we performed the most comprehensive analysis of the region to date, obtaining highly consistent results across all three systems and allowing us to reconcile the models. We infer a primarily common ancestry for Taiwan/ISEA populations established before the Neolithic, but also detected clear signals of two minor Late Holocene migrations, probably representing Neolithic input from both Mainland Southeast Asia and South China, via Taiwan. This latter may therefore have mediated the Austronesian language dispersal, implying small-scale migration and language shift rather than large-scale expansion.

Concepts: Mitochondrion, Holocene, Formosan languages, DNA, Mitochondrial DNA, Historical linguistics, Austronesian languages, Southeast Asia


Scholars have debated naturalistic theories of religion for thousands of years, but only recently have scientists begun to test predictions empirically. Existing databases contain few variables on religion, and are subject to Galton’s Problem because they do not sufficiently account for the non-independence of cultures or systematically differentiate the traditional states of cultures from their contemporary states. Here we present Pulotu: the first quantitative cross-cultural database purpose-built to test evolutionary hypotheses of supernatural beliefs and practices. The Pulotu database documents the remarkable diversity of the Austronesian family of cultures, which originated in Taiwan, spread west to Madagascar and east to Easter Island-a region covering over half the world’s longitude. The focus of Austronesian beliefs range from localised ancestral spirits to powerful creator gods. A wide range of practices also exist, such as headhunting, elaborate tattooing, and the construction of impressive monuments. Pulotu is freely available, currently contains 116 cultures, and has 80 variables describing supernatural beliefs and practices, as well as social and physical environments. One major advantage of Pulotu is that it has separate sections on the traditional states of cultures, the post-contact history of cultures, and the contemporary states of cultures. A second major advantage is that cultures are linked to a language-based family tree, enabling the use phylogenetic methods, which can be used to address Galton’s Problem by accounting for common ancestry, to infer deep prehistory, and to model patterns of trait evolution over time. We illustrate the power of phylogenetic methods by performing an ancestral state reconstruction on the Pulotu variable “headhunting”, finding evidence that headhunting was practiced in proto-Austronesian culture. Quantitative cross-cultural databases explicitly linking cultures to a phylogeny have the potential to revolutionise the field of comparative religious studies in the same way that genetic databases have revolutionised the field of evolutionary biology.

Concepts: Supernatural, Austronesian languages, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Common descent, Religion, Charles Darwin, Scientific method, Evolution


The Austronesian expansion, one of the last major human migrations, influenced regions as distant as tropical Asia, Remote Oceania and Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. The identity of the Asian groups that settled Madagascar is particularly mysterious. While language connects Madagascar to the Ma'anyan of southern Borneo, haploid genetic data are more ambiguous. Here, we screened genome-wide diversity in 211 individuals from the Ma'anyan and surrounding groups in southern Borneo. Surprisingly, the Ma'anyan are characterized by a distinct, high frequency genomic component that is not found in Malagasy. This novel genetic layer occurs at low levels across Island Southeast Asia and hints at a more complex model for the Austronesian expansion in this region. In contrast, Malagasy show genomic links to a range of Island Southeast Asian groups, particularly from southern Borneo, but do not have a clear genetic connection with the Ma'anyan despite the obvious linguistic association.

Concepts: Malaysia, Human migration, Austronesian languages, Asia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Philippines, Southeast Asia


The history of human settlement in Southeast Asia has been complex and involved several distinct dispersal events. Here, we report the analyses of 1825 individuals from Southeast Asia including new genome-wide genotype data for 146 individuals from three Mainland Southeast Asian (Burmese, Malay and Vietnamese) and four Island Southeast Asian (Dusun, Filipino, Kankanaey and Murut) populations. While confirming the presence of previously recognised major ancestry components in the Southeast Asian population structure, we highlight the Kankanaey Igorots from the highlands of the Philippine Mountain Province as likely the closest living representatives of the source population that may have given rise to the Austronesian expansion. This conclusion rests on independent evidence from various analyses of autosomal data and uniparental markers. Given the extensive presence of trade goods, cultural and linguistic evidence of Indian influence in Southeast Asia starting from 2.5 kya, we also detect traces of a South Asian signature in different populations in the region dating to the last couple of thousand years.European Journal of Human Genetics advance online publication, 15 June 2016; doi:10.1038/ejhg.2016.60.

Concepts: Islam, Austronesian languages, Thailand, South Asia, Indonesia, Asia, Philippines, Southeast Asia


Indigenous populations of Malaysia known as Orang Asli (OA) show huge morphological, anthropological and linguistic diversity. However, the genetic history of these populations remained obscure. We performed a high density array genotyping using over 2 million SNPs in 3 major groups of Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. Structural analyses indicated that although all OA groups are genetically closest to East Asian (EA) populations, they are substantially distinct. We identified a genetic affinity between Andamanese and Malaysian Negritos which may suggest an ancient link between these two groups. We also showed that Senoi and Proto-Malay may be admixtures between Negrito and EA. Formal admixture tests provided evidence of gene flow between Austro-Asiatic speaking OAs and populations from Southeast Asia and South China which suggest a widespread presence of these people in SEA before Austronesian expansion. Elevated linkage disequilibrium (LD) and enriched homozygosity found in OAs reflect isolation and bottlenecks experienced. Estimates based on Ne and LD indicated that these populations diverged from East Asians during the late Pleistocene (14.5 to 8 YBP). The continuum in divergence time from Negritos to Senoi and Proto-Malay in combination with ancestral markers provides evidences of multiple waves of migration into SEA starting with the first Out-of-Africa dispersals followed by Early-train and subsequent Austronesian expansions.

Concepts: Austronesian languages, Population genetics, Negrito, Asia, East Asia, Orang Asli, Malaysia, Southeast Asia


There has been a long-standing debate concerning the extent to which the spread of Neolithic ceramics and Malay-Polynesian languages in Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) were coupled to an agriculturally driven demic dispersal out of Taiwan 4000 years ago (4 ka). We previously addressed this question using founder analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control-region sequences to identify major lineage clusters most likely to have dispersed from Taiwan into ISEA, proposing that the dispersal had a relatively minor impact on the extant genetic structure of ISEA, and that the role of agriculture in the expansion of the Austronesian languages was therefore likely to have been correspondingly minor. Here we test these conclusions by sequencing whole mtDNAs from across Taiwan and ISEA, using their higher chronological precision to resolve the overall proportion that participated in the “out-of-Taiwan” mid-Holocene dispersal as opposed to earlier, postglacial expansions in the Early Holocene. We show that, in total, about 20 % of mtDNA lineages in the modern ISEA pool result from the “out-of-Taiwan” dispersal, with most of the remainder signifying earlier processes, mainly due to sea-level rises after the Last Glacial Maximum. Notably, we show that every one of these founder clusters previously entered Taiwan from China, 6-7 ka, where rice-farming originated, and remained distinct from the indigenous Taiwanese population until after the subsequent dispersal into ISEA.

Concepts: Mitochondrion, Ice age, DNA, Austronesian languages, Mitochondrial DNA, Taiwan, Holocene, Southeast Asia


Austronesian languages are spread across half the globe, from Easter Island to Madagascar. Evidence from linguistics and archaeology indicates that the ‘Austronesian expansion,’ which began 4,000-5,000 years ago, likely had roots in Taiwan, but the ancestry of present-day Austronesian-speaking populations remains controversial. Here, we analyse genome-wide data from 56 populations using new methods for tracing ancestral gene flow, focusing primarily on Island Southeast Asia. We show that all sampled Austronesian groups harbour ancestry that is more closely related to aboriginal Taiwanese than to any present-day mainland population. Surprisingly, western Island Southeast Asian populations have also inherited ancestry from a source nested within the variation of present-day populations speaking Austro-Asiatic languages, which have historically been nearly exclusive to the mainland. Thus, either there was once a substantial Austro-Asiatic presence in Island Southeast Asia, or Austronesian speakers migrated to and through the mainland, admixing there before continuing to western Indonesia.

Concepts: Ethnologue, Asia, South Asia, Taiwan, Language family, Austronesian languages, Philippines, Southeast Asia


A Taiwan origin for the expansion of the Austronesian languages and their speakers is well supported by linguistic and archaeological evidence. However, human genetic evidence is more controversial. Until now, there had been no ancient skeletal evidence of a potential Austronesian-speaking ancestor prior to the Taiwan Neolithic ∼6,000 years ago, and genetic studies have largely ignored the role of genetic diversity within Taiwan as well as the origins of Formosans. We address these issues via analysis of a complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequence of an ∼8,000-year-old skeleton from Liang Island (located between China and Taiwan) and 550 mtDNA genome sequences from 8 aboriginal (highland) Formosan and 4 other Taiwanese groups. We show that the Liangdao Man mtDNA sequence is closest to Formosans, provides a link to southern China, and has the most ancestral haplogroup E sequence found among extant Austronesian speakers. Bayesian phylogenetic analysis allows us to reconstruct a history of early Austronesians arriving in Taiwan in the north ∼6,000 years ago, spreading rapidly to the south, and leaving Taiwan ∼4,000 years ago to spread throughout Island Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Oceania.

Concepts: Mitochondrial DNA, Taiwan, Genetics, Human genome, Austronesian languages, Formosan languages, DNA, Southeast Asia


Linguistic and cultural evidence suggest that Madagascar was the final point of two major dispersals of Austronesian- and Bantu-speaking populations. Today, the Mikea are described as the last-known Malagasy population reported to be still practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It is unclear, however, whether the Mikea descend from a remnant population that existed before the arrival of Austronesian and Bantu agriculturalists or whether it is only their lifestyle that separates them from the other contemporary populations of South Madagascar. To address these questions we have performed a genome-wide analysis of >700,000 SNP markers on 21 Mikea, 24 Vezo, and 24 Temoro individuals, together with 50 individuals from Bajo and Lebbo populations from Indonesia. Our analyses of these data in the context of data available from other Southeast Asian and African populations reveal that all three Malagasy populations are derived from the same admixture event involving Austronesian and Bantu sources. In contrast to the fact that most of the vocabulary of the Malagasy speakers is derived from the Barito group of the Austronesian language family, we observe that only one-third of their genetic ancestry is related to the populations of the Java-Kalimantan-Sulawesi area. Because no additional ancestry components distinctive for the Mikea were found, it is likely that they have adopted their hunter-gatherer way of life through cultural reversion, and selection signals suggest a genetic adaptation to their new lifestyle.

Concepts: Madagascar, Malay language, Historical linguistics, Malayo-Polynesian languages, Malagasy language, Language family, Austronesian languages, Southeast Asia


The region of northern Borneo is home to the current state of Sabah, Malaysia. It is located closest to the southern Philippine islands and may have served as a viaduct for ancient human migration onto or off of Borneo Island. In this study, five indigenous ethnic groups from Sabah were subjected to genome-wide SNP genotyping. These individuals represent the “North Borneo”-speaking group of the great Austronesian family. They have traditionally resided in the inland region of Sabah. The dataset was merged with public datasets, and the genetic relatedness of these groups to neighboring populations from the islands of Southeast Asia, mainland Southeast Asia and southern China was inferred. Genetic structure analysis revealed that these groups formed a genetic cluster that was independent of the clusters of neighboring populations. Additionally, these groups exhibited near-absolute proportions of a genetic component that is also common among Austronesians from Taiwan and the Philippines. They showed no genetic admixture with Austro-Melanesian populations. Furthermore, phylogenetic analysis showed that they are closely related to non-Austro-Melansian Filipinos as well as to Taiwan natives but are distantly related to populations from mainland Southeast Asia. Relatively lower heterozygosity and higher pairwise genetic differentiation index (FST) values than those of nearby populations indicate that these groups might have experienced genetic drift in the past, resulting in their differentiation from other Austronesians. Subsequent formal testing suggested that these populations have received no gene flow from neighboring populations. Taken together, these results imply that the indigenous ethnic groups of northern Borneo shared a common ancestor with Taiwan natives and non-Austro-Melanesian Filipinos and then isolated themselves on the inland of Sabah. This isolation presumably led to no admixture with other populations, and these individuals therefore underwent strong genetic differentiation. This report contributes to addressing the paucity of genetic data on representatives from this strategic region of ancient human migration event(s).

Concepts: China, Indonesia, Austronesian languages, Population genetics, Indigenous peoples, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Philippines