Polynesians Contacted Native Americans Long Before European Contact

We’ve had some ideas that prehistoric Polynesian expansions made contact with Native Americans before European contact. For example, the sweet potato, a staple of Polynesian diets for hundreds of years, made its way to Andean culture where it was domesticated. And we’ve identified that some current Rapa Nui people have Native American DNA dating back to 1,300 to 1,500 years ago.

Andrés Moreno-Estrada and Karla Sandoval continued to build off this study, looking to understand the impact of Polynesians to Native Americans, specifically they Rapa Nui. They analyzed the genomes of 166 people from the island and combined that with 188 Polynesian people from 16 other islands, whose genomes were collected in the 80s. They published their findings in Nature, today.

Polynesians on Nuku Hiva, an island in the North Marquesas, carry traces of Native American ancestry. 

Not surprisingly, many Polynesian people genomes reflect the genetic impact of European colonialism. An interesting finding however was when the team identified Native American ancestry in islanders from Palliser, the Marquesas, Mangareva, and Rapa Nui. These Native American genetic sequences we nearly identical, indicating contact with one Native American group.

They took their study further and compared these nearly identical sequences to that of 15 indigenous coastal groups. The Zenu, an indigenous group from what we now know is Colombia, were the most similar. This ancestry appeared first on Fatu Hiva in the South Marquesas about 28 generations ago, or to about 1,150 C.E. and was then carried by Polynesian voyagers as they settled other islands, including Rapa Nui.

It is hard to how contact was made, i.e. did Polynesians make contact on South America or was contact made by indigenous South Americans fairing the Pacific. If only we had ancient DNA could we figure this out. Nonetheless, this is a interesting finding that shows contact and gene flow between Native Americans and Polynesians was happening for quite sometime before Europeans set foot on the Americas.

3 thoughts on “Polynesians Contacted Native Americans Long Before European Contact

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  1. Thor Heyerdahl proved this years ago by showing, personally, that a raft made of balsa wood (found in Chile) could cross The Pacific using ocean currents and a sail to NZ and other Pacific Islands. More relevant than transporting the sweet potato was the method of cooking meats and seafoods in a deep pit using fire to heat rocks and then layering foods on top and covering. It is called Curanto in Chile and Hungi in NZ. There’s a museum in Oslo dedicated to this amazing feat by Thor Heyerdahl to prove to South American migration through the southern Pacific Ocean. While you are contemplating this look into the ocean voyages of the Iberians ( specifically the Portuguese) in their deer hide boats as they hunted seal following the kelp forests and being taken by the Gulf Stream from The Azores to land points such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The evidence is in the ‘red’ skin tones of the Plain Indians, their body structure including their gracile form and prominent facial features as distinct to those of Mongolian descent or those that came with their corn from South America. The other defining feature is the Plains Indians’ equestrian skills – similar to that of the Iberians and their famous Spanish Riding School culture centred around Jerez in the south of he Iberian Peninsula close to the major ports into The Atlantic. That tribal mixing later occurred does not negate these earlier migrations and the populations they left behind.

  2. This confirms something that we guessed at before. It has been known for a while that the sweet potato known as “kumara” in Aotearoa/New Zealand is from Peru. Also that chicken bones found in Sth American were pre-European invasion and from Polynesian chickens (which did not go to Aotearoa.

  3. I read this paper in Nature yesterday and it’s making rounds in blogs and FaceBook archaeology groups.

    My first thought was why did the authors cite Thor Heyerdahl so heavily and not more archaeology. Arguably, Heyerdahl had some racist views about the peopling of the Americas and Polynesian Islands. He also didn’t prove that contact happened, rather that it *could* have happened. The practicality of his stunt was never demonstrated to be applicable by archaeological evidence.

    I also wondered about the fact that they offered the possibility that ad mixture occurred because Polynesians boated all the way to S. America and back to the islands as an alternative hypothesis with Native Americans already populating the Islands when Polynesians arrived as the main hypothesis. My knowledge of Polynesian archaeology isn’t the most detailed, but I’m pretty sure there are decades of work done. You’d think a non-Polynesian culture would have been noticed.

    Above all, I’m curious about how their methods could pin down the date range of the ad mixture so specifically. What precludes the ad mixture from occurring during post-colonial periods? Admittedly, my knowledge of genetics is casual at best, but I didn’t see anything in my first reading of the methods that explained that part. I plan to read the Nature article again though. In the meantime, if someone wants to chime in on that, I’m eager to understand it.

    I’m not against one population or the other meeting in either S. America or the Islands. In fact, supporting archaeological data would be exciting to see.

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