Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Artifact: Pig Incisor Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Erin E. Hayes
Lower deciduous incisor of a domesticated pig (Sus scrofa)

A.D. 1025-1300

The Hanamiai Dune, Marquesas, French Polynesia

About 1 inch long and 1/4 inch at its widest


(Courtesy Jeff Veitch, Archaeology Department, Durham University)

This pig incisor, fractured from the extraction of DNA, may have helped crack one of archaeology's great unsolved cases: how humans settled the islands of the south and central Pacific.

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in eastern Asia first began to colonize Oceania. Their descendants eventually populated the islands from Sumatra to Hawaii, but the origin and exact route of this massive dispersal have remained elusive. One popular theory, based in part on linguistic data and nicknamed "the speedboat out of Taiwan," suggests that people took a route from China to Taiwan and then across the Pacific. But this pig tooth and others like it may have sunk that speedboat.


Because they could only have arrived in Oceania by traveling in the canoes of their owners, domesticated pigs act as reliable proxies for human settlement. Hoping to trace migration patterns of Oceanic peoples indirectly, evolutionary biologist Greger Larson of Durham University and an international team of researchers studied DNA extracted from hundreds of ancient and modern pig teeth from across Asia and the Pacific.

They identified a large number of genetically identical pigs from Oceania, but the origin of the group was surprising. The Pacific pigs' ancestors were found in peninsular Southeast Asia, rather than in China or Taiwan.

This small tooth, perhaps the humble remnant of an ancient pig roast, has helped provide modern scientists with a feast of information suggesting that the indigenous peoples of Oceania are from much farther south than traditionally assumed.