Migration from South America to Polynesia

Incredibly, I’ve just now started reading Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl. I don’t know why I never picked up this book. The introduction to the book made my jaw drop, as it dealt with his early theory of how the population of Polynesia came to be. For some reason, I never read anything about those people, or their origins in the past. They always seemed vaguely Asian to me. Heyerdahl’s theories appear to have been heretical to the scientific community of the time, and he was ridiculed for them.

Anyway, I’m wondering if any of our members can speak to whether his theories were borne out, and if so, some possible recommendations for further reading material that would appeal to the layman. In particular, I’m intrigued by the persistent origin story that concerns a race of light-skinned people with long beards, a story that is also part of Peruvian legend.

Palaeo-anthropology has come a long way since Heyerdahl’s day. There’s not much doubt that Polynesians are an mixed “race” with Austronesian origins and a strong admixture of Mongoloid Asian and various other groups. This is borne out by genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence.

In horribly oversimplified terms, the black skinned people who originally lived from southern India through to Australia developed a seafaring, coastal culture, most likely on Taiwan. That seafaring trait meant that they managed to survive in the face of Mongoloid agricultural expansion when other Australoid people in Asia either went into decline or became swamped by Mongoloid expansion. It also, of course, led to them moving around a lot and in the process they picked up genetic and cultural material from the agricultural peoples of China and New Guinea. So you’re right, they are vaguely Asian, being basically mixture of SE Asian Australoid and Chinese mongoloid.

Over time one branch of the now thoroughly mixed seafarers, the Lapitans, developed into what we know as Polynesians today.

Polynesians certainly never came from South America. There is some evidence that proto-Polynesians may have *been *the original Americans, traveling up the coast of China and and across to North America and thence down the coast. Not a popular theory, but held by some mainstream Anthropologists. But if that is the case then that means that the Americans came from the same stock as modern Polynesians not that Polynesians came from the Americas.

There is also some evidence that Polynesians traveled to South America and back again, leaving chickens in South America and bringing sweet potatoes and other foods back to Polynesia. This is far from established but once again it’s accepted by mainstream anthropologists. And once again, this is not in any way the same as Polynesians coming from South America. Polynesians went to South America, they went back to Polynesia. They may have taken some people with them from the America to Polynesia, but it was such a small number that they left no detectable trace in their genes.

Wow, so Heyerdahl was completely wrong about everything. He certainly presented a persuasive argument as to similarity in origin legends and in the presence of similar statuary, etc. But DNA would be the clincher, of course. Still and all, an Excellent Adventure and a good read so far.

He may have been wrong but the voyage of the Kon Tiki was science. He tried to demonstrate the viability of his hypothesis through experimentation. Far better practice than those that just toss out speculation and consider it fact.

As a side note, ever since I read Kon-Tiki, I’ve wanted to see a whale shark up close.

I read Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki back in grade school, and was so impressed that I got a copy of Aku-Aku and read it as well. I even went to the local college library and read his more scholarly and daunting American Indians in the Pacific.
I was impressed by his actually going out and demonstrating that you could sail a balsa raft on the Humboldt Current across the Pacific, by his actually setting up an Easter Island statue (although not one of the classic moai), and by his later sailing his Ra II across the Atlantic. Neverheless, it seemed clear that the majority of anthropologists were almost certainly right about the settlement of the Pacific Islands from the West. There’s just way too much evidence supporting it.

What did impress me was that Heyerdahl pointed out that some food plants common to South America and some Pacific Islands have the same names in both places. Plants can travel across oceans by various accidental paths, but transmission of names requires people. I’ve since seen much evidence that makes me skeptical of similar words in different languages, and “word lists” are not so convincing to me as they once were, but Heyerdahl’s evidence still gives me pause. Without believing that colonization proceeded from East to West, it seems highly possible that there were some contacts from that direction.

I also suspect that there were other transoceanic voyages before formal contact, although these were so few and rare that they probably left no lasting cultural impressions.

The big takeaway here is useful in many other discussions and also every conspiracy theory.

That sometime was possible does not mean that it happened, and certainly does not mean it happened in the particular way to suit your theory.

I think there’s a strong consensus that the sweet potato originated in South America and that it reached Polynesia with humans. Pre-Columbian chickens in South America is more controversial but I think now regarded as credible. The sweet potato could have reached Polynesia by a one way voyage from South America but if chickens also made it to South America that suggests one or more two-way voyages. And the Polynesians certainly had the capability for such voyages, far more so than South Americans.

One puzzling thing is that the sweet potato must have been transferred early enough to have spread throughout Polynesia, even to New Zealand and Hawaii. Chickens on the other hand apparently did not spread nearly so widely, suggesting they may have arrived later.

To date AFAIK there is no genetic evidence for Polynesians in South America, or South Americans in Polynesia. Nor are there any incontrovertible artifacts.

For anyone interested here is some original footage:


Good stuff, all. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and of above-average intelligence. That I never read these books, or any others (other than Michener and a book or two on Cook’s voyages) about the ethnicity or anthropology of the Pacific, is appalling to me. I picked up Kon-Tiki for a good adventure/survival-at-sea read and was floored by his hypotheses. My only contact with Pacific Islanders in the past was the nine months I spent on Guam, and the occasional contact with Samoans in the Navy. As mentioned, I just assumed that they were the product of Asian migration, with some other group(s) mixed in, so Heyerdahl’s conclusions of a South American/PNW Indian mix were startling.

As usual, the Dope doesn’t disappoint.

You can do it. It is a few hours from my pueblito. Nice place.

Here’s more about the genetic evidence for an origin of the sweet potato in South America. It seems to have reached Polynesia between 1000-1100 AD.

Here’s more on the genetic evidence for pre-Columbian chickens in the Americas. But they seem to have arrived considerably later, after 1300 AD.

There probably were some contacts, but as you note, a handful common words don’t tell you anything.

If you look at the way these lists are usually constructed, you have a 75% chance of finding a match for any word in any language with a corresponding word in any other language.. South America is home to dozens of languages, each with hundreds for words for food plants.The chance of finding 50 matches between words for plants in at least one South American language and at least one Polynesian dialect is near enough 100%.

More likely the reverse, there was a small amount of migration from Polynesia to South America.

There is another interesting possible link between the Japanese and South America in ancient times. Betty Meggers has shown similarities of pottery fragments found in Japan and Ecuador. She contended that Japanese Middle Jomon pottery was similar to ceramics from the Valdivia site in Ecuador—both dating between 2000 and 3000 B.C… Meggers has also stated that plants and parasites of Japanese origin are found among Andean populations. Particularly, a subtype of the HTLV-1 retrovirus was found in two ancient Bolivian desert mummies. Until the recent discovery, the virus was thought to be endemic only to a small region in southern japan. The virus spreads only by sexual contact. The Jomon culture was also based in the southern islands of Japan.

L. Sprague de Camp has a good write-up on the problem of comparing word-lists in his book Lost Continents, and gives examples of such unrelated identical words.

But Heyerdahl’s case isn’t one of comparing words at random in a list – it’s the very more specific case of comparing the names for food plants that are in common in two widely-separated places. In other words, it would not be of interest if the words for “house” or “tree” happened to seem identical – they’re pretty generic words. But if they both have Taro in common, despite the vast geographical distance, and if they both call it “Taro”, that commands interest.

Can you provide an example of this list?

But as that link shows though, it isn’t very interesting. It’s a near certainty that one word for taro in one South American dialect will be identical to the word in Polynesian, by random chance.

See, there isn’t a generic Polynesian for Taro. The words are all related, but include “Tarua”, “Taro”, “Talo” and “Kalo” depending on dialect. Of course the variation within South America is even greater. The most common name in Peru, where you would expect Polynesian contact, seems to be Pituca which is hardly similar to any Polynesian word.

So you can’t possibly say that there is an identical word used in all Polynesia and all South America. The best you can do is find one SA word that corresponds to one Polynesian one. But as the link notes, that gives you such a huge scope that the chances of getting a match is greater than 75% by chance.

Now if we had a list of 24 food plants in a single Peruvian dialect, and those words were all identical to words with *identical *meanings in a single Polynesian dialect, that would be interesting.

But I will bet that isn’t the case. Instead we will have some words in a variety of SA dialects that are vaguely similar in sound to some words with vaguely similar meanings in a variety of Polynesian dialects. That’s not interesting, it’s a near certainty due to random chance.

I can’t find Hyerdahl’s list anywhere, but I did find this article that cites Hyerdahl frequently. The supposed linguistic similarities are things like:

Indian Subcontinent: Kumra
South Am: Kuum

Two different Datura species
China: tolo won
South Am: toolache

Sea hibiscus
Polynesian Mau, Fau, Au etc
South Am: Maho

Two different nightshade species
Marquesas: Kokou
South Am: Cocona

These aren’t anything like identical words and in many cases they aren’t even referring to the same species of plant.

If you search all American languages and all Pacific and Indian Ocean languages, you will apparently find a dozen words for similar cultivated plants that are phonetically similar to the extent of “Tolo won/toolache”.

Not really very interesting at that level.

this certainly does not follow, which was my point.

In any event, it’s been years since I read Heyerdahl. I’d have to go back and re-read for it.

It commands zero interest. *Not *having any overlaps like this might be interesting, just like rolling a 3 six times on a die is interesting. I recommend Trask’s Historical Linguistics. IIRC there was a table of words from Hawaiian and Ancient Greek that have an uncanny resemblance. There just aren’t enough speech-sounds to go around, especially for languages with limited phonology.

IIRC the most recent DNA tests show the people who migrated to the Americas - across the Bering Strait etc. - originated around 20,000 years ago in central Siberia. The interesting thing is whether they spent about 5,000 to 6,000 years isolated meandering about Siberia before heading out to greener/icier pastures.

Recent DNA tests of Easter Islanders show some South American Indian DNA, but it would be surprising if they had any purebred Easter Islanders after 200 years of disease, enslavement, and deportation to South America.

Read some of Jared Diamond’s books (“Collapse”, or “Guns, Germs and Steel”) on the navigation techniques of Polynesians. they had the advantage of a playground of moderately separated islands to develop their skills before they hit the really big ones - hudreds of kilometers to very isolated locations. The South Americans, OTOH, had nothing - the Galapaos (much closer, but never reached) and Easter Island (barely in reach of someone who knew where they were going).

Diamond himself in Collapse has a bee in his bonnet about ecological collapse to the exclusion of any other explanations for Easter Island.