Polynesians had contact with Native Americans before Europeans

Hyperaxion Jul 8, 2020

Genetic analysis with residents of Colombia and French Polynesia suggests that they made contact around the 1200s.

A study led by Stanford University, in the United States, found scientific evidence of the contact between the ancient Polynesians and natives in Latin America in the region where today is Colombia, around 1200. The research was published on Wednesday (8) in the journal Nature and corroborates a theory proposed long ago by historians.

Polynesians had contact with Native Americans before Europeans
(Credit: Ruben Ramos-Mendoza).

Genetic analysis of more than 800 people along the coast from Mexico to Chile and 17 islands in French Polynesia revealed the common ancestry between the two peoples. Based on some hereditary segments of DNA, scientists were able to trace genetic signatures common between these two groups of people that date back hundreds of years.

“Genomics is at a stage where it can really make useful contributions to answering some of these open questions,” said Alexander Ioannidis, a postdoctoral student at Stanford and co-author of the article, in a statement. “I think it’s really exciting that we, as data scientists and geneticists, are able to contribute in a meaningful way to our understanding of human history.”

Sweet potatoes

Originally domesticated in Central and South America, sweet potatoes were grown in parts of Oceania, including Polynesia, long before European colonization. When historians discovered this, it was hypothesized that the natives of these two regions of the world made contact many centuries ago.

“On top of that, the word for sweet potato in Polynesian languages appears to be related to the word used in Indigenous American languages in the Andes,” explained Ioannidis. Similarities between cultures made some archeologists and historians think that it was not only possible, but probable, that the arrival of sweet potatoes in Polynesia was the result of contact between these two peoples.

The researchers believe that it was the Polynesians who arrived in what today is Colombia. However, as Ioannidis explained, it is also possible that one or two Latin American ships have deviated from their expected course and arrived in Polynesia.

The fact is that, until then, cultural evidence and the presence of sweet potatoes in Oceania were not enough to convince scientists that the hypothesis was correct. The new analysis, however, corroborates the idea and sheds light on the issue. “Through this research, we wanted to reconstruct the ancestral roots that have shaped the diversity of these populations and answer deep, long-standing questions about the potential contact between Native Americans and Pacific Islanders,” said Andrés Moreno-Estrada, co-author of the study and head of genomic services at the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Mexico.

In contrast, other researchers believe that genetic information should not be used as definitive evidence that the two populations have had contact – which is why more studies are needed on the pre-colonial history of these regions. “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,” noted 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.”


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