DNA reveals Native American presence in Polynesia centuries before Europeans arrived

New genomic research adds to growing evidence for ancient contact across the Pacific Ocean.


A new DNA study points to the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas as the earliest location for contact between Native Americans and Polynesians. Whether that combination of ancestry came directly from Native Americans arriving in Polynesia, or was brought back west by Polynesians returning from South America, remains unknown at this time.

Native Americans and Polynesians were in contact across the Pacific Ocean centuries before Europeans entered Polynesian waters, according to a new study published todaythe journal Nature. Moreover, this initial interaction likely occurred before people settled on Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island)—the Polynesian island closest to the South American coast that was once thought to be a likely point of contact between the two groups.

Pre-Columbian mingling of Polynesians and Native Americans has long been a subject of debate, one made famous in pop culture by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl embarked on his Kon-Tiki expedition, drifting from Peru to Polynesia on a handmade raft in an attempt to prove that people from the Americas could have populated Pacific islands. Heyerdahl’s controversial theories on the origin of ancient Pacific seafarerscast a taboo over the subject, and many archaeologists have dismissed his ideas.

But other pieces of evidence have suggested there was pre-Columbian contact between people in Polynesia and South America. Previous genetic studies of sweet potatoes suggest the plant was domesticated in Peru and then spread across Polynesia around 1,000 years ago. And the Polynesian name for the root vegetable—"kuumala"—resembles its names in the Andean Quechua language: "kumara" and "cumal."

In recent years, researchers who study human DNA waded into the debate, looking at the genomes of people on Rapa Nui, famous for its towering stone moai statues. A 2014 study of the DNA of 27 people from Rapa Nui found that about 8 percent of their...

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