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DNA genetic analysis proves link between Ancient Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans. Source: Ruben Ramos-Mendoza / Nature

Genetic Analysis Shows Early Contact Between South Americans and Polynesians

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New evidence is emerging about the links between Polynesian and South American populations in the Pacific before the arrival of the Europeans. The theory that South Americans first colonized Easter Island, and other islands, was often considered to be faintly ridiculous. However new genetic studies show that it may be partly true. It appears that Polynesians met South Americans around 1150 AD. This could radically transform the history of the Pacific and also that of Latin America.

In 1947 the famous Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, in his craft the Kon-Tiki, sailed from Peru to Polynesia. This was a remarkable journey and made Heyerdahl world famous. This journey was also an attempt to prove his migration theory. The Norwegian argued that “Polynesia was initially populated by South Americans,” according to Nature. For decades, this idea has not been taken seriously in the academic community.

Sunrise at the Tongariki site on Easter Island. (Andres Moreno-Estrada / Nature)

Sunrise at the Tongariki site on Easter Island. (Andres Moreno-Estrada / Nature)

Evidence of Pre-Colombian Contact

However, evidence has emerged that appears to prove that there were some pre-Columbian contacts between South America and Polynesia. Scientists found that the sweet potatoes found on many Pacific Islands originated on the continent of America. They then made their way across Polynesia roughly a millennium ago. The National Geographic reports that “the Polynesian name for the root vegetable— kuumala—resembles its names in the Andean Quechua language: kumara and cumal.” On the other hand, the birdman competition that used to take place on Rapa Nui, another name for Easter Island, has similarities to cultic practices from South America. These similarities persuaded a team of geneticists to examine if there was any genetic link between the two populations separated by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean .

An earlier 2014 study had found that some inhabitants of Rapa Nui had genes that were inherited from indigenous South Americans . However, the latest study decided to collect samples from seventeen Pacific island communities and fifteen Native American populations from the Pacific coast of South America to detect any genetic signatures to demonstrate historic contacts with Latin America. The National Geographic quotes Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a Mexican geneticist, as saying that “previous studies have been only focusing on the possibility of [Rapa Nui] being the point of contact” and his team wanted to explore other possibilities.

Genetic analysis appears to prove that Polynesians have genetic roots tracing back to diverse regions across the Pacific and the Americas, denoting the mixed origin of the population. (Ruben Ramos-Mendoza / Nature)

Genetic analysis appears to prove that Polynesians have genetic roots tracing back to diverse regions across the Pacific and the Americas, denoting the mixed origin of the population. (Ruben Ramos-Mendoza / Nature)

Genetic Analysis: Relationship Between Polynesians and Native South Americans

According to Nature News and Views , the teams' research involved comparing the “dominant Polynesian DNA markers with those of people from other regions.” Their findings were analyzed using ADMIXTURE software which allowed them to identify the genes of a person and their geographic origins. What they discovered was amazing.

Genetic analysis of genetic evidence appears to prove that Polynesians are related to present-day Indigenous people, especially from the coast of Colombia and Ecuador. Interestingly, the DNA study concludes that the earliest contact was on Fatu Hiva, an island in the South Marquesas islands, sometime around 1150 AD, and not Rapa Nui which is much closer to the coast of South America . “Their model suggests that the mixed population then spread from central-eastern Polynesia around AD 1200,” explains Nature News and Views in discussing the research conducted by Ioannidis et al..

Moai statues at the Rano Raraku site on Easter Island (Javier Blanco / Nature)

Moai statues at the Rano Raraku site on Easter Island (Javier Blanco / Nature)

Did Contact First Occur on Easter Island?

It appears that Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, itself was not the initial point of contact between the two populations. This is surprising because Rapa Nua is far closer to South America. However, “That’s where the winds and currents will take you if you’re drifting,” explains one of the study’s lead authors, Alexander Ioannidis of Stanford University, in the Smithsonian. It is possible that they were cast ashore on Fata Hiva where they either met Polynesians who already lived there or who arrived after them.

Nature News and Views reports that genetic evidence points to “another independent connection with Native South Americans took place on Rapa Nui” sometime in the 14 th century. This is an important finding as it coincides with the development of new stone working styles and the emergence of monumental works on the island. The genetic evidence would seem to confirm earlier theories that there was cultural contact between South Americans and Polynesians.

However, the authors are cautious about such a theory. Their article in Nature explains that the admixture evident “is likely to have originated from a contact event, not on Rapa Nui, but somewhere upstream in the Polynesian settlement process.” Therefore, the genetic admixture seen in Easter Islanders was as a result of the mixture of Polynesians and Native American genes rather than direct contact. The Smithsonian quotes Paul Wallin, who examined the study’s results, as saying that “the surprising thing is that the Rapa Nui admixture happened later, although the cultural impact might have been stronger there than in other parts of East Polynesia.”

Polynesian Visitors of South America

This research raises the question of whether the Polynesians, who were amazing navigators, reached the coast of Latin America or did South Americans travelled west. Ioannidis states that “I favor the Polynesian theory since we know that the Polynesians were intentionally exploring the ocean and discovering some of the most distant Pacific islands around exactly the time of contact”, reports the Jerusalem Post . This argument suggests that the ancestors of modern-day Pacific Islanders visited coastal Ecuador or Columbia. It is possible that “a group of Polynesian people voyaged to northern South America and returned together with some Native American individuals, or with Native American admixture,” explain the researchers in Nature.

The latest findings would seem to be aligned with the various linguistic and other evidence that supports the theory of contact between Polynesians and Native Americans. More archaeological and other studies are needed to prove and to clarify the links. What is apparent is that we need to rethink our understanding of the history of the Pacific.

The full paper is available from Nature.

Top image: DNA genetic analysis proves link between Ancient Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans. Source: Ruben Ramos-Mendoza / Nature

By Ed Whelan

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