University of Cambridge > > Cambridge Evolutionary Genetics > Journal Club: Ancient DNA Recovers the Origins of Māori Feather Cloaks

Journal Club: Ancient DNA Recovers the Origins of Māori Feather Cloaks

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Feather cloaks (“kakahu”), particularly those adorned with kiwi feathers, are treasured items or “taonga” to the Māori people of “Aotearoa”/New Zealand. They are considered iconic expression of Māori culture. Despite their status, much of our knowledge of the materials used to construct cloaks, the provenance of cloaks, and the origins of cloak making itself, has been lost. We used ancient DNA methods to recover mitochondrial DNA sequences from 849 feather samples taken from 109 cloaks. We show that almost all (>99%) of the cloaks were constructed using feathers from North Island brown kiwi. Molecular sexing of nuclear DNA recovered from 92 feather cloak samples also revealed that the sex ratio of birds deviated from a ratio of 1:1 observed in reference populations. Additionally, we constructed a database of 185 mitochondrial control region DNA sequences of kiwi feathers comprising samples collected from 26 North Island locations together with data available from the literature. Genetic subdivision (GST), nucleotide subdivision (NST) and Spatial Analysis of Molecular Variants (SAMOVA) analyses revealed high levels of genetic structuring in North Island brown kiwi. Together with sequence data from previously studied ancient and modern kiwi samples, we were able to determine the geographic provenance of 847 cloak feathers from 108 cloaks. A surprising proportion (15%) of cloaks were found to contain feathers from different geographic locations, providing evidence of kiwi trading among Māori tribes or organized hunting trips into other tribal areas. Our data also suggest that the east of the North Island of New Zealand was the most prolific of all kiwi cloak making areas, with over 50% of all cloaks analyzed originating from this region. Similar molecular approaches have the potential to discover a wealth of lost information from artifacts of endemic cultures worldwide.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Evolutionary Genetics series.

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