Alice A. Storey, an anthropologist at the University of Auckland, has lead a research project that has sought out to identify the origins of chickens in the Americas. Once upon a time, chickens were not native to the this hemisphere of the world, someone brought them over. Yesterday they reported, in a New York Times news article, that they have found,
“the first unequivocal evidence for a pre-European introduction of chickens to South America,” or presumably anywhere in the New World.
The researchers said that bones buried on the South American coast were from chickens that lived between 1304 and 1424. Pottery at the site was from a similar or earlier time. A DNA analysis linked the bones, which were excavated at El Arenal on the Arauco Peninsula in south central Chile, to chickens from Polynesian islands.“
If you haven’t been keeping up with the great 30 year old chicken debate, there
are were two prevailing theories on the origins of chickens in the Americas: one where in pre-Columbian times they came by way of Polynesian visitors, or when Portuguese and Spanish settlers arrived in South America after 1500. Most experts had favored the latter hypothesis but they had a big hole in their theory because when the Spanish invaded Peru in 1532, historical records show,
“they saw chickens being used in traditional ceremonies. It seemed hard to believe, some scholars pointed out, that chickens would have been so rapidly dispersed from the east coast to the west and already be incorporated in religious events.”
This new archaeological research, supplemented by genetic linkage analysis of two chicken populations, shows how this prevailing theory was wrong and that the Polynesians most likely brought over chickens. So the significance of this finding is that Polynesians most likely reached the Americas and made contact with peoples there while they were fairing the Pacific ocean in their canoes. This makes sense. If the Polynesians did make contact with people of the Americas, then food sources are often a great trade item and are assimilated with ease to most cultures.
Chickens are not the only evidence that the Americas were visited by foreign mariners prior European contact. Archaeologists note the presence of South American crops, like the sweet potato, that would have only been propagated by humans, in pre-European archaeological sites in Polynesia and southeast Asia. If you are interested in a more thorough debate on this point, check out what John Hawks has said about this line of evidence.
And before I let you loose, one last line of evidence… linguists have found tries between languages spoken in the Mapuche region of south central Chile and Polynesia, while archaeologists have discovered remains of Chinese pottery at pre-Colombian sites in the America.
I do not yet have the article, which will be published in PNAS. You know how they roll out with the press releases about a week before the publication. I do however have a rather incomplete citation that may get you closer to the first hand research report, once it is out. It is out now, “Radiocarbon and DNA Evidence for a Pre-Columbian Introduction of Polynesian Chickens to Chile.”