Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil

Map of Pacific Ocean When Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer and botanist, went to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva for his honeymoon in 1936, he was fascinated by the indigenous people’s legends that told of their ancestors arriving across the sea from the east.  The only land east of there was South America.  He also noted that island plants such as papaya, breadfruit, pineapple, sweet potato, pumpkin, and wild cotton were native to South America.  Early European explorers noted these plants already growing in the Polynesian islands when they arrived, so Heyerdahl saw their presence as evidence that ancient seafaring people had come from South America to Polynesia, probably floating with the current.  

When scholars refused to take his theory seriously, Heyerdahl had a 45’ long boat made of balsa logs and other native materials, which he named Kon-Tiki, built in Peru.  Boating “experts” all agreed that it would sink within a week.  Yet, 100 days later, on August 7, 1947, Kon-Tiki landed on Raroia Atoll in the South Pacific.  It had covered 4300 miles of open water.
Kon-Tiki crew

Based on this voyage and excavations he made on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), he concluded that people from an ancient advanced civilization from South America had traveled west across the ocean to the South Pacific islands.

Later, fascinated by the common design of reed boats from Egypt and South America, he launched Ra I and later Ra II to show that travel between Africa and South America would have been very possible using reed boats.  Ra I ran into structural problems and had to be abandoned, but in 1970, Ra II made the trip from Morocco to Barbados, off the coast of South America, in 57 days.  It had covered 3,270 nautical miles.

Despite these feats, several very popular books and a movie version of the Kon-Tiki adventure, most of his theories were never taken seriously.

Ancient Mariners

However, some of his ideas  are now enjoying a long-delayed nod of appreciation.  He noted the “bird-man” figure so common in Polynesian petroglyphs was also found on Easter Island, indicating at least some form of communication between them.  Actually, DNA studies have now shown Easter Island (Rapa Nui) native inhabitants to have Polynesian origins.

Perhaps Heyerdahl’s vision was too one-sided.  He saw the people drifting from South America to Polynesia, but they may well have sailed from Polynesia to South America and back again.

Chickens, Coconuts, and Gourds

Chickens likely originated in Southeast Asia, China, or India and spread across the South Pacific with seafaring people.  Interestingly, chicken bones discovered in an archaeological site in southern Chile match 2000 year-old chicken bones found in American Samoa in the South Pacific.  According to Brendan Borrell in the journal Nature, “The discovery of chicken bones with Polynesian DNA at an archaeological site in Chile has added hard, physical evidence to the controversial theory that ancient seafarers from the South Pacific visited the New World long before Columbus.”


Spanish conquistadors reported coconut palms growing in South America when they arrived.  Coconuts originally came from the Philippines.

Bottle gourds

calabash or bottle gourdThe calabash, or bottle gourd, is such a handy water carrier that it spread with human migrations from Africa to Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  The earliest bottle gourd found in an archaeological site in South America is in Ecuador, dated to 9300 years ago.

All of these seem to point to ancient navigators crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the Americas.  A possible route across the Pacific is marked on the map, indicating how people could have traveled, island-hopping across the Pacific to the west coast of South America.  The red line marks another possible water route, from Asia to northern North America.

map of South Pacific migrations

Interesting New Evidence

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent. (The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.)  Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro.  To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry.  A second lab confirmed the findings.  Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”

Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released.  Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed.  DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people.  Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.  Finally we get to see one of many missing chapters with the Brazilian study.

Yet even now, many are unwilling to admit that ancient people had the seamanship and navigational skills to cross vast areas of open sea. Perhaps that will change someday.

cover of Past the Last Island

This writer is particularly pleased with the study finding Polynesian DNA in now-extinct Brazilian Indians since Past the Last Island, the second book of the Misfits and Heroes series, follows a group of South Pacific explorers 14,000 years ago who purposely choose to go past the edge of the world.  And (spoiler alert) they wind up in the New World.

It’s too bad Thor Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, didn’t live to see at least some of his theories become more widely accepted.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl Dies,” National Geographic News, 19 April 2002

Borrell, Brendan. “DNA reveals how the chicken crossed the sea: Ancient Polynesians may have brought birds to the Americas,” Nature 447, 620-621 (7 June 2007), published online 6 June 2007

Choi, Charles Q.  “Polynesian DNA found in ancient Native American bones,” PNAS First Look Blog,  1 April 2013

Hirst, K. Kris. “Trans-Pacific Connections: Was there Pre-Columbian Contact between Polynesia and  America?” Archaeology

“Kon-Tiki,” The Kon-Tiki Museum: Thor Heyerdahl’s Research Foundation

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away population stir up a Paleoamerican mystery”  Nature News, 1 April 2013.

“Thor Heyerdahl”  Wikipedia

One thought on “Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil

  1. Pingback: Championing New Views of the First Americans | misfitsandheroes

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