Human Journey

Tracing New Zealanders’ Genetic History

The Genographic Team has been in New Zealand this week, working with people of Pacific as well as European and other heritages to trace their genetic history.  Each person does this  by just rubbing a cotton swab inside his or her cheek. We will then take the tiny resulting DNA sample and compare it with the Genographic database, revealing the person’s place on the human family tree. In all our sampling sessions, we’ve gotten close to the incredibly diverse groups of people we’ve encountered.

An earlier post talked about meeting the Ngāi Tāmanuhiri community near Gisborne, New Zealand. After saying farewell to our new friends there, the team migrated south to the city of Wellington, a vibrant city on the North Island’s southeastern tip, the capitol (and unofficial arts center) of New Zealand.

Collaborating with the Allan Wilson Centre, we invited one hundred Wellington area residents to participate in the Genographic Project by swabbing with the latest version of our kit, “Geno 2.0,” to add their DNA to the project’s worldwide effort to better understand human history and migration. This event complimented the fieldwork of Lisa Matisoo-Smith’s (the Genographic Project Principal Investigator in the Oceania region) current work across New Zealand.

A Wellington, New Zealand resident swabs with Genographic Project Principal Investigator, Lisa Matisoo-Smith, to participate in the Genographic Project. (Photo by Terence Galuszka)
A Wellington, New Zealand resident swabs with Genographic Project
Principal Investigator, Lisa Matisoo-Smith, to participate in the
Genographic Project. (Photo by Terence Galuszka)

Genographic Project Director, Spencer Wells, and Lisa Matisoo-Smith opened up the evening giving an overview of the Genographic Project with a regionalized focus on New Zealand. The talk also highlighted the Geno 2.0 DNA results of two special invitees of the evening:  Gary Wilson and Richard Brooking.

Richard Brooking is the Chief Executive of the Ngāi Tāmanuhiri and was the Genographic Project’s team host in Gisborne earlier in the week. Richard belonged to Y chromosome haplogroup R1b, the most common group from Western Europe, and mitochondrial DNA haplogroup B4a1a1, also known as the Polynesian Motif. This branch of the mitochondrial tree is thought to have been carried by the ancestors to most modern Polynesians when embarking on expeditions of discovery and exploration as they found and settled nearly every island in the Pacific. Richard’s type is specifically found only in eastern Polynesia, and points to the fact that New Zealand shares a prehistoric past with the Cook and Austral islands, but also Hawai’i and Easter Island.

Chief Executive of the Ngai Tamanuhiri, Richard Brookings, mtDNA haplogroup map.

Gary Wilson is a journalist and brother to late Allan Wilson, one of the forefathers of the field of anthropological genetics and the namesake of the Allan Wilson Centre. Gary, and therefore also his brother Allan, belonged to mitochondrial DNA haplogroup K, a common genetic clan found in the Middle East, but also central and eastern Europe. His Y chromosome haplogroup was a British Isles branch of haplogroup R1b.

Earlier, Spencer and Lisa discussed the Genographic Project with 200 Wellington High School students at St Mary’s College. After learning about the Genographic Project and Lisa’s regional scientific research, the audience asked questions such as “In a few hundred years, do you expect to see radical changes in the human genome?” (Anna from Wellington High School) and “Can mitochondrial DNA be altered?” (Jordan from St. Bernard’s College in Lower Hutt, NZ).  Jan Szydlowski, a teacher from Onslow College in Wellington, NZ, wondered, “Are people of different cultures accepting or in disbelief of these ancestral stories you are describing?”

Faces of some Genographic participants from Wellington. (Photo by Terry Galuszka)
Faces of some Genographic participants from Wellington. (Photo by Terry Galuszka)

Next stop for the Genographic team is back home to the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, DC. We have to admit that we are sad to leave our new friends and stunning New Zealand. Stay tuned as we analyze the new results and report back to our new Genographic Project participants.

Learn how you can take part in this global effort at


Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • Martin Curley

    Great project and great story

    As you are an organisation renowned for your sensitivity to local cultures can I highlight an area of your report that caused concern to myself as an Irish person.

    You refer to the ‘British Isles branch of haplogroup R1b” and not to the Irish branch which some in NZ probably belong to. The omission of the ‘Irish’ suggests that somehow you don’t see it as separate

    The term ‘British Isles’ is one that in Ireland is very problematic After centuries of cultural oppression and devastating colonial policies leading to millions of deaths the term ‘British’ has darker and more sinister connotations to people on our island which is adjacent to the British Isles

    There is a lazy tendency to dump Ireland in with the ‘British Isles’ but that is not accurate historically, culturally or politically.

    I would hope that NG would be sensitive to the 70 million global Irish community – 62 million whose abode is far from their homeland as a result of nefarious colonial practices – and refrain from other’s lazy misnomers A more accurate line in the story would be ‘British Isles and Ireland’ or the ‘Islands of the North Atlantic’

    The term British as used today is a recent invention to politically subsume, by the Hanoverian dynasty, the Scottish identity which it had just defeated in the 18th century. Thankfully my ancestors long struggle to throw off the yoke of the oppressive British empire was partially successful in the past century and we are no longer in thrall to its malevolent dictates.

    Is mise le meas

    Martin Curley
    Ireland (the island next to the British Isles and part of the Islands of the North Atlantic)

  • David Bails

    Martin Curley:

    Get over it.

  • Dan

    They are referring to geographic areas in general, not taking into account cultural, historical or political sensitivities.

    This link may be helpful:

  • gerold firl

    This could be an interesting topic, but I think what most people would want to know is how much Maori is present in the NZ genetic spectrum. Also it would be interesting to understand the percentage of mDNA as it compares to chromosomal DNA. That would tell us about intermarriage patterns between the Maori and and European settlers.

    A sample size of 200 is a little small to draw definitive conclusions, but these are the kind of insights only genetic testing can provide.

  • Howard Walker

    I received the Geno 2.0 kit as a gift and sent in samples over 3 weeks ago, set up an account with the kit ID, and the project site still indicates my samples have not arrived. This may be a scam project. Be careful?

  • Adrian

    Dr M Vilar,
    Can you give me a heatmap for my mtDNA side Haplogroup B4c2 (B4c from FTDNA – FMS), but i have missing mutation on A16235 Position, not A16235G. Until now The Geno 2.0 give me a headmap of an mtDNA Hg R. Am i have more similar with an mtDNA Hg B4a than B4b – B2?

  • felicia

    I did a test and results came by email takes awhile but it does arrive, lol shocked at results but hey didn’t know much only about my Maori side.

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