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The Human Population Genetic History of the Sulu Archipelago, Philippines

The Sulu Archipelago is a chain of more than 900 islands between the landmasses of Mindanao in the Philippines and Borneo. It is home to diverse peoples such as the Tausūg and various Sama groups, including the formerly boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut. This region at the southwesternmost tip of the Philippines has figured in a number of significant demographic and political changes in the past. The islands were steppingstones of ancient migrations into and out of Philippines, with evidence of human occupation in the Balobok rock shelter dating to around 8,000 to 5,000 years ago. Sama-Bajaw languages spoken in the island chain are thought to originate from the Barito river basin in south-eastern Borneo. With the arrival of Islam, the Sultanate of Sulu formally rose as a maritime power over a region that included parts of Borneo and Palawan at its peak of power. Sulu then was a thriving ecosystem ruled by royalty and aristocracy which made subjects of locals and captive slaves. At present, national boundaries largely restrict movement in what used to be a larger network of coastal settlements connected by trade and kinship. Longstanding politico-ideological conflicts have also isolated the region from the rest of the Philippines in more recent times.

Through successful expeditions along the island chain, I led a fieldwork team in collecting biological samples from over 2,100 individuals spanning ~100 villages. A comprehensive account of the island chain's genetic history will be gleaned from the analysis of uniparental and genome-wide markers and whole genomes. The dense population sampling is expected to reveal compelling narratives of how diverse island environments and cultural practices shaped the biology of Sulu inhabitants for many thousands of years.