Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 1

Hey there every peoples!

Why do we celebrate Columbus’ so called discovery of the new world? Columbus was an overzealous nut job who made enemies everywhere he went, even driving his own men to mutiny. I guess we made it a holiday to mark the glorious day when the Americas were opened up to the “civilized” world. Except it was a load of crap. Not just the fact that Columbus’ mission was to find new lands to exploit to cover the crown’s debt, but also because he was not the first outsider to make it to the Americas. We have fairly good evidence that in 1000 AD the Vikings made a temporary settlement on the eastern coast of Canada. There is even some evidence (in the form of butternuts) that they may have gone further south into the northeastern United States. While many other ideas have arisen, only one can rival the Vikings legendary voyage.

If I were to ask you who the greatest sailors of the ancient world were, what answer would you give? Would say it was the Phoenicians? Or would you say it was the Chinese? Or maybe it was the aforementioned Vikings? Well what if I told you it was actually the Polynesians? Believe it or not Polynesians were master sailors, able to settle some of the most remote and isolated specs of land on earth using only Stone Age technology. They sailed in massive double hauled canoes capable of carrying dozens of people with cargo. They used charts made of stones (representing islands) and sticks (representing ocean currents) to chart their way across the Pacific. But did they get to the Americas? A growing body of evidence suggests that they did.

A Polynesian style double canoe. They ranged from 36 feet to over 60 feet long. Image from Tahiti1

Sweet potatoes were a major crop for Polynesians but the tuber is not native to the tropical Pacific. It is only found in the Americas. Sweet potato remains from Polynesia were analyzed and were found to be very similar to a variety grown in Ecuador.  An adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl proposed that ancient Peruvians had developed sea travel and spread the sweet potato that way. He even made a boat out of reeds and sailed it to show that such an idea was plausible. His hypothesis was met with much skepticism. But the discovery of bones on Mocha Island off the coast of Chile hinted that instead of Americans venturing out to Polynesia, it was the other way around. The bones bore several Polynesian traits, such as a rocker jaw and a pentagonal shaped cranium. It was tantalizing but far from conclusive. Enter the chicken bones!

Archaeologists digging at a site called El Arenal discovered a cash of chicken bones. Since we know chickens were not found in the new world before the Spanish arrived, the initial conclusion was that the site was post contact. But a few scientists scrutinized the bones and found they had traits of Polynesian breeds. A carbon dating test was applied to the bones and the date came back as being between a.d. 1321 and 1407. The Spanish had arrived on the western coast of South America in 1528. That would mean the bones came from a chicken that lived well before the Spanish conquest. The scientists argued that its genes meant it could only have come from one place: Polynesia. The discovery was so astounding that Archaeology Magazine named the chicken bones one of the top 10 discoveries of 2007.

One of the chicken bones found at El Arenal which bears Polynesian traits. Image from Archeaology.org

The bones immediately aroused controversy. A year later a paper was published that claimed the chickens were European descendants and that the dates may have been wrong. They claimed that dna of modern Chilean breeds have unique markers tying them to European stocks rather than Polynesians. They went on to add that marine sediments could have contaminated the bones, making them appear older than they actually are. A co-author of the original paper countered that further research only confirmed the original suspicions. Isotopes showed that the diet of the chickens was land based, not marine based, thus disproving the contamination idea. And since the dates seem solid, that would mean that the chickens were pre-columbian and hence had to come from somewhere else. (As a side note, they compared the dna of modern breeds. It is possible that breeds introduced by Polynesians were overwhelmed by the ones brought by the Spanish. It may be that the vast numbers of chickens brought by the Spanish could have drowned out the Polynesian traits. Just another random likely false thought by me).

The case for Polynesians making the voyage to South America is mounting. Even though physical evidence is turning up, there is of course the conundrum looming over this debate. Jan T over at Raising Islands puts it very well:

How could the amazing Polynesian voyaging culture have populated virtually every isolated island in the vast Pacific and missed the Americas? Answer, of course: It didn’t. The Polynesians simply failed to settle in the Americas, perhaps because there were already people there.

Take Rapanui (Easter Island) for example. It lies 2500 miles from Chile and 1500 miles from the Marquesas. Rapanui is 63.1 square miles in size. That’s almost 1/8 the size of Los Angeles. How the hell would they have managed to find this small spit of land in the middle of buttfuck nowhere and not be able to find their way to the Americas? It’s looking a lot like they did. What does this have to do with California? I’ll get to that in the next post, since I have gone on for so long I better split it up. Stay tuned for the intriguing conclusion!

Till next time!

10 thoughts on “Did the Polynesians beat Cabrillo to California? Part 1

  1. Very cool post.

    I had long wondered this myself why they hadn’t shown evidence of contact in the Americas. Mind you the Polynesian story has always been one of colonization, not co-existence (not meant as an insult just a statement of fact).

    It is interesting to note that the Maori in New Zealand brought sweet Potato with them, and they settled NZ before 1300AD. By this stage the acquistion of the potato had already become the stuff of legend, and was a staple of their mythology as well as their diet. So while the find of the chicken is definately cool and telling, it mostly likely represents a late revisit.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I never thought a dinosaur would know so much about the history of us puny humans, lol!

      Seriously though. I am also an ancient war buff and can attest to the lack of cohabitation in Polynesia. One source says that the Hawaiian islands enjoyed a period of peace after colonization until warriors from Tahiti showed up. As Jan T stated, they probably were not able to colonize the Americas because there was already people here. The Polynesians were fierce and skilled warriors but then again so were the Amerindians.

      The arrival of the Polynesians in the New World is likely like the early colonization of the Americas: it wasn’t a single event but likely a series of events. We have the possible ancestor of the Polynesian sweet potato in Ecuador, chicken bones in Chile, and (as we’ll see in part 2), multiple hints of contact in California. That alone suggests multiple trips.

    • Your “fact” about the Polynesian story being one of colonization, not co-existence is not a fact. Our oral histories tell of trade routes, intermarriages between the descendants of chiefs in other islands, and cultural exchange with neighboring “melanesian” islands. Our proverbs speak of peace and our system of governance is more closely related to a confederacy than it was to monarchy (despite the terminology used by european colonialists). Thats not to say that there were not wars, feuds, and that certain individuals did not attempt to take the mana of others through combat. But how we ruled and our conceptualization of power must be understood to be able to put these events in their proper context.

  2. I am a common sense people watcher that loves history. I believe your theories may soon be proven as new archeological finds arise. I am Mexican American and I have studied the facial features of the Indegenous South Americans, Central Americans and North Americans as well as Asians and Polynesians and have always noticed unmistakable similarities. Most Indegenous people have distinct although varied asian facial features but sprinkled among them are tribes who share distinct polynesian facial similarities and were as they were described in ancient legends as giants. In attending several Indian Pow Wows I came to see why some tribes were considered to be giants. Giant, is the first word that popped in my head when I first met a Samoan Seargent when I was in the Army.

    In a recent trip to Washington D.C. we visited the Smithsonian Museum and my most interesting discovery was a display case containing the skulls of an African, European, and a Native American. They were all distinctly different, with their differences also posted in specific writing. The missing pieces of the puzzle would be an Asian skull, Polynesian skull and the skulls of several tribes: Eskimo, North, South and Central American Indigenous people. Examining the skull similarites and differences may be able to provide further evidence.

    Another area that needs investigation is the language similarities of the polynesians and the indigenous people of the Americas.

    The Polynesian people had to be masters of the oceans to inhabit the islands as they did. The Native Americans covered a land mass from Alaska down to Chile and Argentina and as far east as Greenland and even Iceland. Come on, who were the real travelers, explorers and adventurers? Who were the real heroes?

    Alex Landeros
    Visalia, CA

  3. Alex,

    Please excuse my amateurish insights, for I am more a linguist than an anthropologist. Despite strong parallels, my assessment at this point is that there may have been contact and education (I am undecided) by Polynesians of native Americans e.g. Chumashans regarding fish boats, fish hooks, as well as mutual trade of chickens and sweet potatoes, but no genetic interchange betwixt the two peoples.

    The morphological variety of native Americans, clearly Asiatic—I’ve heard Mongolian—is great, the range from the round-headed nearly Chinese etc. Inuit, to the long, broader nosed Plains tribes coming to mind. They appear to have straight, black hair, little body hair, and darker or yellower? skin than most Celts, Norse, and even Germans. Again, I beg for awareness and learning in this area.

    Nonetheless, similarities such as those few between Samoans and Pacific American natives strike me as merely concurrent and of only the deepest (ancient) origins. We are obviously all ultimately descended from a common source, have we not only four blood types (eight witht the Rh factor)?

    Personal note>> My sister is very “ethnic” looking, being mistaken multiple times by native Mexicans as one of their own, Crees on the reservation as theirs, and enduring countless other misattributions. She has no such ancestry, as I have had my DNA profile done (Greek).

  4. Love it! After watching a History channel documentary called “Who Really Discovered America,” I’m researching information for my 7th grade History students. We’re going to debate whether or not Columbus deserves the credit. (I say no, but I’ll present them all the evidence I can and let them form their own opinion.) I’m finding mounting evidence for the Polynesians as well, and your post is easy enough for them to read with arguments clearly stated. If only you hadn’t used some PG13 language at the end……. ;)

  5. Chicken bones from Arauco with Polynesian DNA (Tonga !) was the first hard evidence for a Polynesian contact in southern Chile. We do have some preliminar evidence to support the idea of a long term genetic and cultural exchange between Polynesian sailors and Mapuche settlers in central-south Chile. It seems many of the “Polynesian-like” (soft, “not conclusive” evidence !), traits among our pre-Columbian Mapuche were real cultural borrowings. We do need a deeper analysis on what was the real extent of such a contact from an anthropological point of view.

    Jose Miguel Ramirez-Aliaga
    Universidad de Valparaiso

    • The designs/motifs on the Ecuadorian pottery looks a lot like the Lapita pottery, evident in early Polynesian societies from 1350 BCE or maybe earlier. I’m guessing not all Polynesian voyagers founded, necessarily, Polynesian societies; some may have perished or others unsuccessful at the ice caps. In the case of arriving to an inhabited place, such as the Americas, the only alternative would have been to isolate oneself from the predominant population (ghetto) or assimilate.

  6. Chickens: hey! they did pretty well crossing the road…. why not the Pacific? The question is “Why” did they do it? They ARE birds, though minimal flight capacity, they may float better than people, they get blown around by storms (prevailing winds and hurricanes… ask hawaiians about hurricane Iniki’s freeing of and dispersing of now uncontainable chickens all over the entire chain of islands… and look at the flotsam now arriving off Oahu and the Pacific NW bringing invasive species to those areas after Japan’s tsunami… imagine a few chickens also hitching a ride on floating debris islands (which fishermen understand attracts life and starts up localized food chains which ultimately attracts big fish and birds) and eating bugs hatching out of decomposing vegetable and animal remains until they reach North America. Recently, a snowy owl showed up in Oahu.
    The premise that chickens could only have been brought to North America by human beings seems suspect to me.

  7. While learning my genealogy, I found that we may have possibly come from South America prior to entering into the Pacific, then eventually settling in Tahiti, and then in Hawai’i. There are other lines in the genealogy that may have entered into the Pacific via Alaska or the Pacific Northwest, to Hawai’i.

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