24 October 2014

Early contact among South Americans and Easter Islanders

There are now two separate pieces of evidence (appearing in two separate studies) that suggest that the Polynesians of Easter Island mixed with the natives of South America. One study reports two Polynesian skulls that were found in Brazil among the indigenous Botocudo tribe. (Yes, you read that correctly, Brazil!) The other study, shows that the Rapa Nui (Easter Islanders) have 10% South American ancestry, which has been traced back 19-23 generations. I wonder if this explains how the sweet potato made it to south-east Asia. In a related paper by Goncalves et al., we find the following:

New evidence from human and nonhuman material has become available since then. For example, there were archeological findings of Polynesian chicken bones in the Arauco Peninsula, in Chile and evidence has been found in Easter Island of pre-Columbian presence of sweet potato and bottle gourd, both typical of South America. Independent of the plausibility or implausibility of the pre-Columbian arrival of Polynesians to the South American Pacific coast, there still would remain the need to explain how these migrants crossed the Andes and ended up in Minas Gerais, Brazil. We feel that such a scenario is too unlikely to be seriously entertained.

So the sweet potato may have made it to Easter Island at least. The Goncalves et al. paper, which discusses possible explanations for the two skulls, also considers the possibility that they're from Madagascar slaves. (Madagascar was originally settled by Polynesians.)


BadTux said...

It would be surprising if the Easter Islanders had *not* sent out exploration canoes that reached South America, the Polynesians were, after all, great explorers long before Europeans dared leave their dank little continent. That said, once they'd denuded their island of large trees that could be turned into canoes any such contact clearly was done and over with...

I agree with the Madagascar explanation for the Brazilian skulls though, because, well, Andes. Duh.

Karlo said...

In the paper, the authors also dismiss crossing of the Andes as extremely unlikely. Based on all the places the Polynesians went (all the way to Madagascar), I'd be surprised if they didn't hit South America. At the same time, that doesn't mean they'd necessarily leave much of a genetic fingerprint on the local genome. My guess is that if they came, they came in small numbers. If they'd colonized any area, it would be obvious listening to the language. We know a lot about Polynesians languages, after all.