Evidence suggests Polynesians encountered Native Americans long before Europeans
By: Leyuan Zhou
By 1200 C.E., Polynesians were already roaming thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean in outrigger canoes to settle in islands ranging from New Zealand to Rapa Nui. At one of these islands, they met Native Americans.
Naturally, you would want to know: Did these remarkable explorers travel the last 3800 kilometers to eventually arrive in South America? Evidence from a genomic study conducted among more than 800 descendants of Polynesians and Native Americans suggests that they did. Population geneticist Andres Moreno-Estrada and anthropologist Karla Sandoval, both from Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, conducted the genomic study in Rapa Nui, a Polynesian island close to South America. Through the experiment, the group hoped to solve the mystery of Polynesian ancestry. The results showed a trace of identical Native American genes among the Polynesian inhabitants of the island, suggesting a short encounter between the two groups.
Earlier research showed that the Polynesians were guided by subtle changes of wind and waves, the paths of migrating birds, bursts of light from bioluminescent plankton, and the position of stars; this could have allowed them to meet Native Americans on the northern coast of South America. Scientists inferred that the two groups met and mixed well before the era of European colonialism, which opens possibilities for Polynesian-Native American genes.
Expanding genomic research to the islands beyond Rapa Nui “was what was missing from the whole picture,” says Lars Fehren-Schmitz, an anthropological geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The newly collected evidence will further strengthen the previous hints of contact between the two regions.
An early sign of Polynesian and Native American interaction was the sweet potato, which was cultivated in the Andes region but grown and eaten in Polynesia for hundreds of years before Europeans appeared. Additionally, a DNA study of 27 modern people from Rapa Nui found that they had Native American ancestry dating back to 1300 C.E. and 1500 C.E. This was around 200 years before the first Europeans settled there in 1722 C.E. However, the results from another study refute this evidence, showing no sign of Native American ancestry among Rapa Nui citizens.
The group led by Moreno-Estrada and Sandoval analyzed genome data from 166 Polynesians from the island and combined the results with the analyses of 188 Polynesians from 16 other islands whose genetic samples were recorded in the 1980s. Their team discovered that the inhabitants of the island possessed both Polynesian and European history, verifying the history of colonization. However, a small amount of Native American ancestry was also present in people from Palliser, the Marquesas, Mangareva and Rapa Nui, which are eastern Polynesian islands. Because the Native American genes were short and nearly identical, the meeting between the two groups was a brief, long-ago event that did not sustain, according to Moreno-Estrada.
Although researchers cannot pinpoint the exact location of the first encounter, “it’s more likely that Polynesians traveled to the northern coast of South America,” says Keolu Fox, a genome scientist at UC San Diego. As the Polynesian explorers journeyed frequently between islands (and possibly South America) and back, “they brought back the sweet potato, and they also brought back a small fragment of Native American DNA from relationships on the mainland.” The Polynesians were seasoned travelers, so “the ocean is not a barrier” for them, Fox adds.
Researchers agree that contact is probable, but only ancient DNA can be proof of an encounter. “This study shows us a new path to follow,” says Francisco Torres Hochstetter, an archaeologist at the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum in Hanga Roa on Rapa Nui. “It opens our minds.”