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Keywords:

  • Easter Island;
  • inbreeding;
  • surnames;
  • tribes;
  • Mata

Abstract

The population of Easter Island is one of the most interesting extant human communities due to its unique demographic history, its geographic isolation, and the development of an incomparable culture characterized by the towering “Moais” and its enigmatic writing. Following the colonization of its population by Polynesians from the Mangarevan Islands in the 5th century AD, the island remained isolated up until the middle of the 20th century. Under these conditions, with endogamy levels fluctuating between 61.04–96.54% and given such a small population, a high rate of inbreeding, and consequently, an elevated level of genetic relationships would be expected. Using data from church and civil records, we calculated the consanguinity of the population of Rapa Nui. The results of this analysis do not support the hypothesis of a high level of consanguinity (α = 0.00028 and Ft = 0.0007, with Fr = 0.00586 and Fn = −0.00519), suggesting instead the existence of a strategy used to avoid marriage between close relatives. To explain these observations, the structure and exchange dynamics of the population were studied in the tribes, known locally as “Mata.” The results of this analysis suggest a tendency toward the avoidance of inbreeding within tribes, in order to decrease the rate of endogamy in each group. This is consistent with ethnographic observations from the beginning of the 20th century that support the existence of strict regulations to prevent inbreeding between closely related individuals. Furthermore, we confirm that this situation dates back to a period before the “refounding” of Easter Island. Our results demonstrate that conditions of geographical isolation are not in themselves sufficient to produce an elevated inbreeding coefficient, revealing Easter Island as an interesting example of how cultural rules can shape the genetic structure of a population. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2006. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.