Polynesians Beat Spaniards to South America

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When I was a kid, I was intrigued by Thor Heyerdahl's fascinating book, Kon-Tiki. This book details Heyerdahl's voyage from Peru across the Pacific Ocean to the Tuamoto Islands where his crude raft eventually beached. By carrying out this voyage, he was trying to show that his hypothesis was possible, that South American Indians could have rafted across the ocean, settling islands along the way.

"Scientists have not been willing to fully accept the idea" of prehistoric contact between Polynesia and South America, said said archeologist Terry L. Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, "but it is hard to understand why."

However, there now is direct evidence that the Polynesians at least did make it across the Pacific Ocean: chicken bones found in Chile. The chicken bones were recovered from a site called El Arenal-1 in south-central Chile, approximately a mile and a half inland on the southern side of the Arauco Peninsula. Thermoluminescent dating of ceramics from the site indicates the site was occupied from AD 700 to 1390.

Radiocarbon dating revealed the chicken bones were about 622 years old. Even with potential errors, that means they dated from somewhere between AD 1321 to 1407 -- before Spaniards first made it to the New World. Additionally, genetic analysis of the chicken bones showed that they were identical to genetic sequences of chickens from that same time period in American Samoa and Tonga, both islands that are more than 5,000 miles away from Chile.

"I was pretty excited when the dates came back as clearly pre-European. There were no questions. The Europeans didn't pick them up in Polynesia and bring them back," said archeologist Elizabeth A. Matisoo-Smith of the University of Auckland, and senior author on the paper. The new findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previously, the most convincing evidence of contact between South Americans and Polynesians was the presence of sweet potatoes at archeological sites throughout Polynesia. Sweet potatoes are a native plant from South America. Additionally, sweet potatoes dating from about AD 1000 have been found on the Cook Islands. Equally important, the name of the potato used throughout Polynesia is the same name given it by South Americans.

"If we know they landed in Chile," said Jones, "then why is it so difficult to imagine they couldn't have made it to Southern California from Hawaii?"

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The Polynesians were (and are) excellent sailors and navigators. The Polynesian Voyaging Society founded by anthropologist Ben Finney has built and sailed historically accurate vessels over great distances.

Now, now. Be accurate - it was the Polynesian chickens that got to South America first, not necessarily the humans.

No wonder Kon-Tiki looked like a nest of twigs.


.."Scientists have not been willing to fully accept the idea" of prehistoric contact between Polynesia and South America, said said archeologist Terry L. Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, "but it is hard to understand why."...

I suspect that the reason may be political, in the sense of what is considered politically correct thought.

The example of Kennewick man comes to mind the skeleton appeared closer to Ainu than modern local peoples http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/kennewick/ but this isn't allowed because it upset some people who claim to be the descendants of the original settlers. Sadly we may never know now.

As for Polynesians visiting South America, seems worth investigating further. They managed to traverse the rest of the Pacific and the evidence, in the article, points in that direction.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 05 Jun 2007 #permalink

The chickens, sewn planks, Olmec bigheads, racial warring, relatively advanced civilizations, all support a case for preclovis occupation in South America, reasonably from Polynesian origins. We need more corroboration of the tentative dating of 20-30 kybp!!
Carl Bauer, Arizona

By Carl Bauer (not verified) on 30 Jun 2007 #permalink

Throughout these arguments about whether or not Polynesians actually reached South America is a parallel and equally important question: Did South Americans reach Polynesia, or indeed, Australia? If they were able to navigate sea-going vessels (believed to be Balsa rafts) into the western Pacific, then surely Polynesians, with their even more efficient double-canoes, could have sailed to the east and eventually to South America. Not often enough does this on-going argument cite the very obvious arrival, in the early 1970's, of Balsa rafts on the shores of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. (Look up 'La Balsa")
A whole lot more was taking place out there in the Pacific than meets our minds! See also: 'The Mal'lam Voyagers" , a novel in eBook format, through abook2read.com ,by Jim Leslie. This story is based upon years of research on this very subject. Alo'ha

By Jim Leslie (not verified) on 17 Apr 2010 #permalink