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!