Scientists at the University of Otago said their finding could clear up competing theories about ancient Polynesian populations and the pathways of their great migrations across the Pacific to New Zealand.
Researchers sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of four Rangitane iwi tupuna (ancestors) who were buried at a large village on Wairau Bar near Blenheim, one of New Zealand's most important archaeological sites, more than 700 years ago.
Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited through the mother's side and can be used to trace maternal lineages and provide insights into ancient origins and migration routes, study leader Lisa Matisoo-Smith said.
"We found that three of the four individuals had no recent maternal ancestor in common, indicating that these pioneers were not simply from one tight-knit kin group, but instead included families that were not directly maternally related," she said in a university release Monday.
"This gives a fascinating new glimpse into the social structure of the first New Zealanders and others taking part in the final phases of the great Polynesian migration across the Pacific."
Now that the researchers have identified several unique genetic markers in New Zealand's founding population, work can begin to obtain and sequence other ancient and modern DNA samples from Pacific islands and search for these same markers, the researchers said.
"If such research is successful, this may help identify the specific island homelands of the initial canoes that arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand 700 years ago," Matisoo-Smith said.