Gene analysis project goes way, way back

OLIVIA WANNAN
Last updated 05:00 04/08/2014

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Gisborne resident Richard Brooking is English on one side, Maori on the other - and Asian on both.

He is one of 2000 people to take part in a gene analysis project being run by the University of Otago.

He was interested in testing a few family legends, but the project goes further back than that, and can determine where their ancestors were from, right back to when humans first left Africa roughly 60,000 years ago.

Eighteen months ago, Brooking invited researcher Lisa Matisoo-Smith and her team to collect DNA samples from his Ngai Tamanuhiri iwi.

"We were interested because she told us the story of the human journey and our potential link with our Pacific relations."

He had two tests done on his own DNA: one on his cells' mitochondria, passed down from his Maori mother, and one on his Y chromosome, passed down from his father, of English descent.

The results traced his surname back to the village of Ipplepen, in Devon. Brooking's English-born great-grandfather settled in New Zealand as a teenager.

But 20,000 years ago, his father's line was living in northern Asia. "It then went up into Europe, and then branched out into Italy, France and finally into England," he said.

The DNA results on his Maori mother's side were equally enlightening, he said. "I had a full Polynesian motif that linked me to just about all of the Pacific island nations back to the south coast of Taiwan."

Polynesians are widely believed to have migrated from southeast Asia between 5000 and 6000 years ago. Brooking's DNA goes back further, showing his mother's forebears were living in southern Asia 20,000 years ago.

The findings fascinated Brooking.

"As Maori, we have great historic reference to our traditional waka in our story-telling, and having DNA evidence to back it up is quite something.

"The past 10 generations you might have some shared information, but back from that, it's kind of difficult."

Genetics lecturer Matisoo-Smith said the tests were able to pick up migration on a timescale of hundreds to thousands of years. European migration to New Zealand was too recent to register, for example.

"But we can see Viking colonisation in the British Isles [from the ninth century]. We can see these kinds of historical events."

One of the most exciting discoveries for her was the large variation in genes within Maori people, which was evidence for a mass migration to Aotearoa.

"It's not just a few canoes. We think it was hundreds of people - at least hundreds of women. It's pretty exciting."

The project, part of a worldwide survey with National Geographic funding, sampled New Zealanders from Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. While each person's information would pinpoint where their ancestors lived, collectively the results might highlight some key differences between cities.

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The national results will be unveiled by Matisoo-Smith at Government House this month.

- The Dominion Post

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