Ancient Chilean Chicken May Not Be Of Polynesian Origin

It is coincidental that a regular Anthropology.net commenter, Terry, just posted a comment about last year’s study on the origins of early American chicken because PNAS published a new paper on this topic today. Razib pointed out the link to the new paper, “Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA.” This current study challenges claims of last year’s paper, the one that suggested that chickens were first introduced into South America by way of seafaring Polynesians, before the arrival of Spanish chickens in the 15th century.

After sampling the mtDNA from 41 native Chilean chickens and comparing the sequences to over 1000 modern domestic chickens from around the world, including the previously published sequences from Polynesian and Chilean chicken bones, the researchers concluded that ancient chickens from Easter Island may represent mtDNA signatures (haplotypes 145 and 148) of early Polynesian chicken transport, but ancient Chilean chickens do not. In fact, the pre-Columbian chickens have haplotype 8, which is the single most common chicken haplotype found around the world.

This indicates that pre-Columbian chickens were not exclusive to Polynesian peoples. Alan Cooper, one of the authors of this paper and the director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, said,

“This sequence would undoubtedly have been common in the early Spanish chickens, and therefore provides no evidence of Polynesian contact. So while we can say the [haplotype 8] chicken was popular amongst early Polynesian voyagers, we certainly can’t use it as evidence for trade with South America.”

    Gongora, J., Rawlence, N.J., Mobegi, V.A., Jianlin, H., Alcalde, J.A., Matus, J.T., Hanotte, O., Moran, C., Austin, J.J., Ulm, S., Anderson, A.J., Larson, G., Cooper, A. (2008). From the Cover: Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(30), 10308-10313. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0801991105

3 thoughts on “Ancient Chilean Chicken May Not Be Of Polynesian Origin

  1. There are a couple of problems with this paper, too. The authors point out that a unique haplotype has only been found in ancient bones from Easter Island, but not from Chile and not from Polynesian Islands west of Easter, either. They’ve been apparently swamped by newer arrivals.

    This ‘swamping’ may just as well have happened in Chile. A lot more chickens came with Europeans than ever could have been introduced by Easter Islanders, and there’s been 500 years of interbreeding since.

    The same swamping could have ‘finished’ the Araucana-type chicken, with blue eggshells and no rumps in Polynesia. You could hardly find archaeological remains of blue eggsells or absent rumps.

    On their carbon-dating points, the authors are not quite being fair when they say that the Chilean chicken bones dated to Cal AD 1304–1424, are only 70 years pre-Columbian, by taking the latest carbon date, and the earliest possible European contact date.

    If you take the mid-point carbon date 1364, and the earliest European arrival on the Western coast, Pizarro 1532, then they’re 170 years earlier.

    Incidentally, Pizarro found chickens in Peru when he arrived. Atahualpa, the emperor he defeated, means chicken in Quechua.

    I don’t think this disproves anything.

  2. Pizarro also said (or the chroniclers to be exact) that they found sheep, but they were llamas. They said they found peacocks, but they were turkeys. The Spanish put the wrong names on animals quite a lot. The “chicken” seen by the Spanish could have easily been a different sort of fowl. It could have been a grouse or a quail for example.

    The researchers identified a particular haplotype present in Easter Island/Polynesian chickens which is not present in Chile chickens.

    Let’s look at exactly what the researchers wrote:

    “The position of the single Chilean pre-
    Columbian chicken sequence within the worldwide distributed
    haplotype 8 removes any genetic support for a Polynesian
    introduction of this haplotype to South America.”

    That’s pretty clear…. “removes any genetic support for a Polynesian introduction” ..

    The paper also puts a lot of doubt on the chicken bones that were found (which amount to a total of 5 birds IIRC) even being Pre-Columbian. Richard did not mention this but the C14 results were not adjusted for marine carbon. Which would place the bones in a much later time frame, and into the Post-Columbian period.

    I suggest anyone interested in this debate read the paper for themselves. Here is the abstract:

    “European chickens were introduced into the American continents
    by the Spanish after their arrival in the 15th century. However,
    there is ongoing debate as to the presence of pre-Columbian
    chickens among Amerindians in South America, particularly in
    relation to Chilean breeds such as the Araucana and Passion Fowl.
    To understand the origin of these populations, we have generated
    partial mitochondrial DNA control region sequences from 41 native
    Chilean specimens and compared them with a previously generated
    database of 1,000 domestic chicken sequences from across
    the world as well as published Chilean and Polynesian ancient DNA
    sequences. The modern Chilean sequences cluster closely with
    haplotypes predominantly distributed among European, Indian
    subcontinental, and Southeast Asian chickens, consistent with a
    European genetic origin. A published, apparently pre-Columbian,
    Chilean specimen and six pre-European Polynesian specimens also
    cluster with the same European/Indian subcontinental/Southeast
    Asian sequences, providing no support for a Polynesian introduction
    of chickens to South America. In contrast, sequences from two
    archaeological sites on Easter Island group with an uncommon
    haplogroup from Indonesia, Japan, and China and may represent
    a genetic signature of an early Polynesian dispersal. Modeling of
    the potential marine carbon contribution to the Chilean archaeological
    specimen casts further doubt on claims for pre-Columbian
    chickens, and definitive proof will require further analyses of
    ancient DNA sequences and radiocarbon and stable isotope data
    from archaeological excavations within both Chile and Polynesia.”

    Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean
    and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA

    1. Dear sirs,
      while reading the history of “Hernan Cortes’s Conquest of Mexico” by Salvador de Madariaga, one of his soldiers Bernal Diaz del Castillo also a direct witness and chronicle writer mentions in different chapters and especially in the one dealing with Cortes’s landing on the a
      American mainland on March 12, 1519 that while marching and exploring the new lands, moving from Tabasco to Tlaxcala, the people of these tribes fed the spaniards with corn, pork meat (Pecary?), deer and fowl. Among the fowl are mentioned Ducks (Muscovy or other?), Egrets, rarely Pigeons, Turkey, Quail and Chicken (mostly white feathered). Now what is the origin of these “Gallinas = Chicken” ? Even when Cortes arrives into Mexico, people living along the roads and in the countryside are describred having around their houses plenty of these “gallinas”. Years later, already on the Pacific Ocean shore, Cortes sends a sailship full of food and other warring provisions to Pizarro in Peru who apparentely was needing such a support. This way some Chicken may have travelled from Central America to Peru and later down to Chile, but this happened very close to mid 1500. It doesn’t seem that via Polinesia the small Silky White Japanese polidactilous chicken came to America to be eaten by its indigenous population and help restore energies to the Spanish conquerors. Quite a curiosity that I would like to have it more clear.
      Sergio Corbet MSc Agriculturalist.

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