Science

DNA suggests Polynesian and Native American contact pre-European arrival

DNA suggests Polynesian and Na...
DNA samples for a new study included ones from inhabitants of Easter Island
DNA samples for a new study included ones from inhabitants of Easter Island
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DNA samples for a new study included ones from inhabitants of Easter Island
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DNA samples for a new study included ones from inhabitants of Easter Island

An archaeological conundrum may have been solved by DNA analyses carried out by a team of Stanford Medicine scientists led by Alexander Ioannidis that indicates Native Americans and Polynesians came into contact centuries before the arrival of the first Europeans.

In 1947, a young Thor Heyerdahl and five like-minded explorers set sail from Peru on a primitive balsa raft on an epic 101-day journey across 6,900 km (4,300 mi) of open sea to Raroia in the Tuamotus in Polynesia. The purpose of this dramatic experiment was to answer a question that had puzzled scholars for decades. Why were there so many similarities in some words, works of art, and even crops between the native peoples of the west coast of South America and those of Polynesia?

The Polynesians and the South Americans are unrelated, with the South Americans believed to be descended from people who migrated down from North America, while the Polynesians migrated much later across the Pacific from Southeast Asia. However, some works of Polynesian art resemble those found in the Andean civilizations of South America, and some Andean and Polynesian words sound very similar, but the biggest puzzle was that the Polynesians cultivated sweet potatoes – a plant native to South America. Even more intriguing are similarities between the word for sweet potato in Polynesian and various Andean languages.

The problem was that the two peoples were separated by thousands of miles of open ocean. The Polynesians had great voyaging canoes, but the winds and currents would have prevented them from reaching South America except by a rough upwind tack, and while the South Americans had winds and currents in their favor to drift west, their seacraft were limited to fragile coastal rafts made out of balsa wood.

The purpose of Heyerdahl's voyage was to reveal whether the South Americans could have sailed or drifted to Polynesia. Despite ending up on a reef, the Kon Tiki voyage was successful. However, it only proved that such a trip could be made, not that it did happen.

The Stanford study aimed at gathering direct evidence that Polynesians and Native Americans not only did meet, but that they also had offspring, which would be reflected in modern populations. These would be revealed by deep-genome analysis, which involves sequencing genomes in search of snippets characteristic of each population and segments that were inherited from the same ancestor generations ago.

According to Stanford, this isn't the first time that DNA has been brought to bear on the problem. Early genetic tests focused on sweet potatoes and how or if the ones grown in Polynesia are related to the ones in South America, but the genetic origins of the sweet potato were too complex to provide a definitive answer.

Instead, Ioannidis's team focused on 807 samples from people on 17 Polynesian islands and from 15 Native American groups along the Pacific coast of the Americas from Mexico to Chile. Modern DNA samples were preferred because, as is notorious in the tropics, samples from archaeological sites were too degraded. From there, they were able to trace common genetic signatures of Native American and Polynesian DNA back centuries to about 1200 CE, which Ioannidis says is "around the time that these islands were originally being settled by native Polynesians” and is over 200 years before the first Europeans reached South America.

According to Ioannidis, the DNA points to a genetic mingling of people from Polynesia and what is now Columbia due to Polynesians landing either by design or accident in South America at least once, though it is also possible that a Columbian raft was caught in a storm and drifted west, which could also explain the sweet potato's migration as opposed to their floating on a natural vegetable mat.

"If you think about how history is told for this time period, it’s almost always a story of European conquest, and you never really hear about everybody else," says Ioannidis. "I think this work helps piece together those untold stories – and the fact that it can be brought to light through genetics is very exciting to me."

The research was published in Nature.

Source: Stanford Medicine

8 comments
The deerhunter
There is apparently a lot of similarity between New Zealand Maori and extreme North Pacific coast Native Americans. This is particularly noticeable in art culture and carving. This has carried forward to include numerous cultural exchanges from both places. There are many threads on YouTube about this by an American woman.
Jose Gros
If 'Vahine no te vi', a Gauguin paint, means: 'Woman of eggplant', and 'Te pito no te genua' , 'The nombril of the world', is the name Easter islandés give their land, language similarity is evident, 'pito', is 'pit', as in 'Uapitis', 'White pit', in slang 'White hole', also coincident with
an Spanish term for 'con' (french), 'potorro'. Conquistadores reported Aztec and other Native American languages having similarities with Greek, a sailor in Colón expedition reported having spoken baske with caribbeans. Another evidence of links comes from cooking recipes. Blessings +
jerryd
I think it is rather arrogant thinking both didn't have much better boats or they couldn't figure out how to get back to the islands by stars, etc since they have been traveling between islands forever.
As a Multihull building, ocean sailor I've studied their technics.
And native N and So Americans came by boat likely were skilled boat builders, not just balsa rafts they didn't have until they got to SA.
Thor's voyages were near useless proving anything other than he was crazy, wrong and a reed raft was a bad idea, only good for lakes, rivers and near shore fishing.. If it wasn't for the Polynesians on board he'd be dead.
Nobody
Looking at ancient evidence, it appears that our ancestors were far more intelligent than we are. Even with all our modern technology we can't reproduce their work. Cave men with rocks and wood survived for many thousands of years. Today science, technology and specialization have made it possible to plunder our resources and destroy our own habitat. 99% of us are now too civilized to survive. Our great grand parents were probably the last generation who could survive on their own. I have traveled the world and noticed something about civilizations. The older the ruins, the more precisely cut and larger were the stones. I think ancient man had traveled most of the earth long before we think they were capable of. Individually we are devolving.
bwana4swahili
Interesting how humans have expanded across the world!
toni24
You really need to do some more research, on this DNA testing and linguistics. I have a friend who speaks fluid Gaelic and Gaedic and by using tis sould understand the language of the Deneh or Navajo peoples. There is also reports that DNA markers for Gaelic/Gaedic peopleshow up in Native American Indian peoples from British Columbia, down to the Navajo lands and back up to the Great lakes. Even Lon Tiki, for which the expedition was named for supposedly had red hair, a trait that no native tribe has. There are many books on this, Dr Barry Fell's "Bronze age America and America BC are a couple good ones. There are even legends of Phoenicians reaching South America. Brazil is said to have dumped massive loads of debris and soil over the site of a suspected Phoenician ship wreck to erace any proof that their national Hero from Portugal was only a late comer
toni24
There is also evidence that American Native peoples did not come across the Bering land bridge but up from South America. A very possible idea since Aborigines of Australia sailed to that continent over 45,000 years ago. I am sure that Polynesian and/or other peoples could have sailed to South America by 14,000 to17,000 years ago. Face it everyone and his dog has discovered the New World long before Columbus
Matt Fletcher
Ever see Egyptian, Cambodian & Mayan hieroglyphics, pyramids & jewelry compared side by side, very similar forms of art, architecture, and writing.