Lisa Matisoo-Smith: From Africa to Aotearoa

by Dale Husband
Sun 12 Mar 2017
11 min read

Year by year, we have scientists revealing more and more about the world we live in — and about the part that human beings have been playing for almost unimaginably long periods of time. New Zealand scientists have made significant contributions to that growing knowledge. One of them, Lisa Matisoo-Smith, based now at the University of Otago, has been talking with Dale.


Kia ora, Lisa. Now, there’s no need for us to undervalue your strong links with the States — especially Hawai‘i and California — and with Japan and Estonia. But I think that we should make it clear that you’re well and truly a Kiwi by now. Kiwi husband, Brent Smith, Kiwi daughter, Tessa Smith — and 30 years as an increasingly prominent New Zealand scientist.

And recently that prominence has been to do with your work in tracking the human migration that began from Africa 60,000 years ago — and led on, eventually to the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific and Aotearoa.

Perhaps you’ll explain how all those threads have come together in you. Starting with your Estonian whakapapa.

Well, Dad — Andres Matisoo — was born in Estonia and left as an eight-year-old when the Russians were coming across the border. He and his family were refugees at various places but ended up in Germany and, after the war, they moved to the United States. He was 13 by then.

That’s where he met my mum, Julie. Her people went over to North America on the first boats of religious crazies leaving England, Scotland and Wales in the 1600s. And Mum and Dad met in Indiana. They were high school sweethearts and they’re still together today living in Dunedin about 20 minutes away from us.

My mum’s family was involved in early politics in the United States, and some of them were among the pioneers moving out west and helped in the early development of the state of Indiana. Mum had a medical career in mind but, because my dad chose the navy, she became committed to being a naval officer’s wife — although she had other major interests including social anthropology, architecture and journalism.

I was born in Hawai‘i in 1963, while dad was posted there with the navy. I have a brother, Mikel, who is two years older and was born in Indiana. When I was eight, we moved to Japan, where we adopted my older sister, Tomiko. I lived there for nearly 10 years until I went to the University of California at Berkeley.

Inevitably, you would’ve had contact with many different cultures in those early years. So I imagine that would’ve made your move to Aotearoa relatively easy. Especially with your Hawaiian background — because your old man had a high-profile gig there with the navy, didn’t he?

He was working in Pearl Harbour at CINCPAC FLEET, one of the main administrative centres for the Pacific. He did all kinds of things while in the navy. He was in general intelligence. He was initially trained as an engineer. Was also a navigator on his first ship while we were in Japan. And when he retired from active duty, he was working as a nuclear engineer outfitting nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. He did all kinds of interesting things.

Then, so I hear, your brother was in the same class as Barack Obama at primary school. Maybe, though, that was a bit before Barack became president.

That’s true. When we were in Hawai‘i, we went to Punahou School. The boys were in the same class in fifth grade — and Barack went by Barry back then.

And it was love that brought your dad and mum together in Indiana, and I suppose it was love that brought you to New Zealand, Lisa?

It was indeed. I met the love of my life in a London pub and it’ll be 30 years ago this September that we were married.

Actually, when I met Brent, I was on my way to an archaeological dig in France. That was a cave site called Lazaret, in Nice. A Neanderthal site. But once we were in New Zealand, I was able to follow up an interest I already had in human evolution, human variation and human history.

And I suppose what made it easier, too, was I felt, because of being born in Hawai‘i and then spending years as a child there, that I was coming back to my Polynesian roots.

It was in the mid-‘80s that I got here. At that time, at Auckland University, Professor Roger Green was the head of an incredibly strong department in Pacific anthropology, covering archaeology, linguistics and social anthropology.

And I started thinking about how we could use some of the biological tools to try to understand and combine with all of that other information that people were discussing and accumulating.

It was good timing, too, because that was when DNA technology was developing and Allan Wilson, the great New Zealand scientist, was publishing his work with his students on mitochondrial DNA and the mitochondrial Eve hypothesis.

He’d come from milking cows out there near Pukekohe, gone on to Otago University and, eventually, to Berkeley where his research was showing how closely our modern human populations were related — and how that tied up with various migration pathways.

So, for me, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And that had me thinking over some of the questions about the settlement of the Pacific and what we could do once the technology was available.

A remarkable guy, Allan Wilson — and of course we have a connection with him here on e-Tangata, through his brother Gary, who’s our co-editor. Sadly, Allan was probably better known overseas as a DNA pioneer than in New Zealand — although his work has intrigued you and many others now for a generation, hasn’t it?

Absolutely. I hope New Zealanders will come to recognise what an outstanding international scientist he was. He was one of the pioneers in the field of molecular evolution. A lot of the work that Allan started, and had his students working on, has been incorporated in that core area of research. We owe so much to him and his thinking. It was really unfortunate that he passed away so early in his life, just over 25 years ago.

Kia ora. Let’s turn to your work here in New Zealand where I suspect that, at least at first, you encountered reservations from tangata whenua regarding DNA. There would’ve been some hesitation or resistance to being swabbed. And there would’ve been some confusion about the new technology and where it was all leading to.

When I began my research, it was clear to me that many scientists hadn’t really thought about the ethical implications of the new technology. Or how to engage with people in general — but especially with indigenous communities.

So, when the whole human genome diversity project was happening in the early ‘90s, many indigenous activists and researchers — with a number of Māori leading the way — were saying: “Hang on a second. You have to talk with us.”

That was the atmosphere when I started thinking about doing research. And I appreciated and respected that position. So I began wondering whether there was another way to understand and track the movement of people without actually studying humans themselves.

Fortunately, I was working with some Māori colleagues. Dr Mere Roberts was one of my supervisors on my PhD research. She’d been studying kiore, the Pacific rat, and she told me its story and how it got to New Zealand in the waka.

She also introduced me to Hori Parata from Ngāti Wai. This, of course, was at the time of the discussions about the Wai 262 Treaty claim. So I came to understand more about the translocation of plants and animals — and I began to recognise the importance of those species for the original human arrivals.

We could see that, if you could figure out, for example, where the kiore and kuri came from, then you’d know where the waka that brought them came from. So it was a way of tracing the movement.

Of course, that wasn’t completely free of many of the ethical issues that were being raised about the study of human genetic variations. These are taonga and we have responsibilities to engage with and discuss this with iwi who are their protectors.

I learned a lot from Hori Parata and from conversations with other wonderful advisors, like Ranginui Walker and Waerete Norman, about the role of the kiore and the kuri — and also the role of various plants. And that led on to some DNA research on the kiore, and conversations about mitochondrial DNA and how it’s inherited down the maternal line.

So, I also started working with archaeological remains of kiore and kuri. And expanding my research. Not only looking at variation within Aotearoa but looking across the Pacific and working with the communities across the Pacific on kuri and kiore and trying to track them. Also tracking pigs and chickens which were the other animals carried across the Pacific by the ancestors of Pacific peoples — although they didn’t make it to New Zealand.

We only got the kiore and the kuri. Those were the only ones that were intentionally maintained when they were introduced. But it was while I was doing that work on the animals that conversations just evolved and we had people saying: “Why don’t you study our DNA?”

You know you’ve thrown a spanner into the works because we were a people with a great cultural pride — some would say an arrogance — with the belief that we’re God’s own people. That we’re descended from the gods. And then you come along and tell us that we’re actually related to the guys down the street.

We’re actually all related. That’s beyond debate. And the question is just about identity. The question is: When did Māori become Māori? And it’s a similar question for all people today. When do we start to identify ourselves as being different from our ancestral population? When did New Zealanders become Kiwis? That’s the standard human process.

Have you got an answer to those questions?

It’s going to be different in every case. Some people hang on to the homeland longer and identify themselves as belonging to some place else. But, usually, it’s within a few generations that we start focusing locally rather than harking back to the homeland wherever that may be.

Some people will always include that in their identity, in their whakapapa. I think it’s an individual thing. And then, at some point, it becomes an “us” versus “them” thing. And there’s the question of how we define “us”.

So, what you’re saying is that we could encounter anyone on the globe and call them “cuzzies” — and we’d be pretty safe?

Yep. Absolutely.

All right, Cousin Lisa. And thank you. I’m coming round for tea.

Can I borrow the car keys?

No problem. You can even borrow my favourite shirt.

Yes — we’re all related. But you can still be proud of your own cultural identity whether that’s an iwi affiliation, or as Māori or as Pacific people. Ultimately, though, we’re all human. And we can appreciate our unity and shared recent history as well as our individual experience — whether that’s personal or family or whatever. Our unique character as well.

And I think the more that people appreciate that diversity, the better off we, as a species, will be. That diversity is actually an important biological necessity, if we’re going to survive.

Let’s talk now about that big project you’ve been working on — the story of human migration, From Africa to Aotearoa. In the past, there’ve been suggestions that Polynesians have a South American origin. More recently there’s been talk of our links with the First Nations people of Taiwan. Then you come along and say: “Nah. We, including Māori, go all the way back to Africa.

This really was started by the work of Allan Wilson and his students, Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking. They showed that we can all trace our ancestry back to a shared maternal ancestor. “Eve” — as she was named by the press — lived in Africa about 200–250,000 years ago.

Then a small group, a sub-set of that population, left Africa about 60–65,000 years ago. And, out of that African migration, they began the great migration in various directions around the globe and, for some, that ended with the arrival of people in Aotearoa about 750 years ago.

All of our ancestors branched off at various points of that journey and we can use the DNA, the mitochondrial DNA which is inherited through the maternal line — and we can use other forms of DNA as well — to trace the migrations and histories, for example the Y chromosome DNA which is passed from fathers to their sons.

But all of our ancestors branch off from that common ancestor and from the out of Africa migrations. So, with our big research project, we’re trying to reconstruct the pathways that people took. And, as it turns out, in the random sampling of over 2,000 New Zealanders, we’ve found that almost all of the world’s mitochondrial family lines are represented by people living here in Aotearoa today.

Have you come up with any surprises as you’ve zeroed in on the Polynesian ventures from South East Asia and even on to Chile?

My main area of research, as an academic, is in trying to understand the settlement of the Pacific. The initial human expansion across the Pacific is interesting. And so is understanding today’s populations. People have always been moving and populations have always been changing. And mixing.

Early on, the western understanding of Pacific migrations was limited by the Eurocentric ideas about the capacity of Pacific people for two-way voyaging. There were assumptions that people were pushing off the beach in their canoe and hoping to find land and, because there’s not a lot of land out there in the Pacific, the result was a lot of loss of life. That was the theory.

But this Polynesian navigation around the Pacific is truly, I think, one of the greatest feats in human history. Particularly when you look at the distances they covered. And the speed at which they moved. Clearly these were very successful voyages. And strategic too. These people knew what they were doing. They were prepared. They weren’t just loading everybody and all their stuff into a waka — and hoping to find land.

They’d survey the Pacific, find land, come back and take the colonists to their new home. They  established new settlements and, from a scholarly perspective, it’s a fascinating time in human history. I think it’s something that all humans should understand and be proud of.

We study the pyramids and all these other great events in human history. But they kind of don’t compare to the amazing technological skills and the navigational skills of those Pacific colonists.

And, yes, they did continue to voyage and explore. The evidence is clear that they had contact with South America. They brought the kumara back. We’ve found evidence, too, of the introduction of Pacific chickens to South America.

But there were already people living there. So, yes, they were linked. Did they make a genetic impact in South America? Probably not. But they found some things that looked interesting and useful. The kumara was a recognisable and potentially important food resource that fitted into the Pacific agricultural system. It looked like and grew like taro and yams. They brought it back to the Pacific and it became an important part of the Polynesian and Pacific diets. We have archaeological evidence of kumara dated to around 1000 years ago in the Cook Islands.

So we’ve been sampling populations across the Pacific and coming up with much more data than previous studies produced — partly because of the ethical issues and partly because researchers hadn’t engaged with the Pacific communities before.

And we’re finding much more diversity than people expected. It may even be that there’s enough diversity to tease out the data and identify particular islands or archipelagos that were the source populations for settlement, for example, for Aotearoa.

We’re in the throes of some fascinating research and discoveries.


© e-Tangata, 2017