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Indigenous Americans and Polynesians encountered each other around the year 1200

Family from Marquesas Islands, PolynesiaFamily from Marquesas Islands, PolynesiaA new study has found that Indigenous Americans (native inhabitants of the Americas before Europeans arrived following Christopher Columbus's voyage of discovery in 1492) and Polynesians met face-to-face for the first time around the year 1200. Analysis of the DNA of present-day populations shows that people from the two cultures mingled and interbred. Their descendants are living proof. Whether indigenous peoples from present-day South America travelled thousands of kilometres west to tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific, or whether seafaring Polynesians sailed to South America and then back again, is still unknown. But what is certain is that one or other of these events took place hundreds of years before Europeans set foot in either region.

Thor HeyerdahlThor HeyerdahlFor decades, archaeologists and historians have looked for evidence that Pacific islanders and Indigenous Americans crossed paths during the Middle Ages, and how that contact might have occurred. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002) decided to prove his theory—that people from Peru had populated the remote Pacific islands—by making the journey himself and thus showing it was possible. He built a primitive raft, which he named Kon-Tiki after an Inca god, and sailed from Peru to Raroia Atoll in French Polynesia. Carried by prevailing winds and ocean currents, he and his crew covered a distance of nearly 7000 kilometres in 101 days. (Raroia Atoll is indeed located in the region where some of its inhabitants have DNA matching that of Indigneous Americans.) 

A photo of the Kon-TikiA photo of the Kon-Tiki

Polynesian settlement, represented by a trianglePolynesian settlement, represented by a triangleBut it turns out that Heyerdahl may have been only half-right. “It is more likely that Polynesians reached the Americas, given their voyaging technology and demonstrated ability to cross thousands of miles of open ocean,” said the lead researcher Alexander Ioannidis, from Stanford University. Travelling in large outrigger canoes, Polynesians are known to have established settlements across a vast area of the Pacific Ocean inside a triangle formed by the Hawaiian Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand. The Polynesians must have been expert seafarers in order to cover such vast distances without using maps. They navigated using the Sun, Moon and stars and found new islands by following migrating birds. 

Cultivating sweet potatoesCultivating sweet potatoes
Until now, probably the best evidence of interaction between Indigenous American and Polynesian cultures has been provided by the sweet potato. This foodstuff was first domesticated in Peru thousands of years ago, yet was also cultivated on Polynesian islands at least since 1400. Furthermore, Polynesian words for the sweet potato (kuumala) are similar to those in Indigenous American languages (kumara and cumal). It is of course possible that some sweet potato shoots could have floated across the Pacific Ocean on pieces of driftwood—but it is more likely that the vegetable was, at some point, transported there by humans. 

Researchers collected genetic data from 800 individuals selected from 15 Indigenous American groups living along the Pacific coast of South and Central America, as well as from 17 Polynesian islands. They found sequences of DNA with exactly the same code in both American and Polynesian groups. By measuring the length of the Indigenous American pieces of DNA in Polynesians, the researchers were able to estimate how many generations ago the contact between the two groups occurred. This pinpointed the timing of the encounter at around 800 years ago: approximately 1200.

A view of Fatu Hiva, South MarquesasA view of Fatu Hiva, South Marquesas
The study identified the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Marquesas archipelago as the earliest location for contact between Indigenous Americans and Polynesians. The encounter occurred before people first settled on Easter Island (known to the inhabitants ar Rapa Nui), the Polynesian island closest to the South American coast and once thought to be the likeliest first point of contact between the two groups. 

Moai (massive stone heads) on Easter IslandMoai (massive stone heads) on Easter Island

In 2014, researchers studied the genes of 27 people from Rapa Nui. About 8% of their DNA was found to match that of Indigenous American ancestors. The two groups, the study concluded, probably mixed around 1340, centuries before Europeans first arrived in 1722. 

Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoePolynesian double-hulled voyaging canoePolynesians may have reached the shores of South America, then colonized other Pacific islands, taking people originally from the Americas—and sweet potatoes—with them. Or their descendants may have returned to Polynesia carrying their genetic ancestry, now including that of Indigenous Americans, with them. Most archaeological evidence supports one or other of these possibilities, rather than Indigenous Americans reaching Polynesia first. Polynesians are known to be expert long-distance voyagers; there is little doubt that they had the skills and maritime technology necessary to reach the Americas. 


Photo acknowledgements (from top): Public domain; Nasa; Nasjonalbiblioteket; David Eccles (gringer); USDA photo by Lance Cheung; Monster4711;; Orpheus Books Ltd.

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