Polynesians definitely reached South America - study

  • 23/10/2014

Polynesian travellers reached South America hundreds of years before Europeans explorers arrived, new genetic analysis has proven once and for all.

And two skulls belonging to the indigenous Botocudos tribe in Brazil analysed by scientists showed no trace of Native American ancestry at all, suggesting they are descended from early Polynesian explorers.

"Textbook versions of human colonisation events - the peopling of the Americas, for example - need to be re-evaluated utilising genomic data," says Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas of the Natural History Museum of Denmark's Centre for GeoGenetics.

Archaeological evidence has long suggested contact between Polynesians and South Americans, such as the presence of kumara on various Pacific islands, including New Zealand. But this is the first definitive proof that Polynesian travellers reached the Americas soon after settling Easter Island, around 1200 CE.

The study, published in today's issue of Current Biology, analysed the DNA of 27 modern day inhabitants of Easter Island – the Rapanui. It showed there was significant contact between the Rapanui and Native American tribes between 1300 and 1500 CE; they only began mixing with the European population around 1850, more than 100 years after Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen found and christened Easter Island.

Modern day Rapanui's ancestry is 76 percent Polynesian, 8 percent Native American and 16 percent European.

But rather than South American tribes finding Easter Island, which is much closer to modern day Chile than any Polynesian island, scientists are sure it was the other way around - it's much easier to find a continent that stretches from the equator almost all the way down to Antarctica than it is a tiny island one-seventh the size of Auckland.

"All sailing voyages heading intentionally east from Rapa Nui would always reach the Americas, with a trip lasting from two weeks to approximately two months," the study outlines. "The return trip appears more challenging."

Simulations showed voyages west, if they didn't know of the island's existence, would be mostly unsuccessful.

"Not only did the first [Polynesian] colonisers reach islands separated by thousands of miles, they seemingly did so in a rapid, upwind fashion, since the most prevalent winds blow east to west at those latitudes," the study states.

Kumara aside, the lack of any Native American cultural influence in Polynesia backs up the theory expansion happened in a west-to-east direction, and that it was Polynesians doing the sailing, not South Americans.

Easter Island is best-known for its large statues, of which there are about 900 dotted around the island.

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