Sunday, July 15, 2001

William Wallace views the Hokulea in Kahana Bay.
The successful voyages of the Hokulea have proved
the early seafaring skills of Polynesians.

Clues to
a Polynesian-
American migration

Pacific peoples may
have seen the New World
before Columbus

The earliest American

By Jim Borg

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl rode ocean currents from Peru to the Tuamotu Archipelago, 2,600 miles south of Hawaii, aboard the balsa raft Kon Tiki. Heyerdahl was attempting to bolster his theory that natives of South America helped to populate the Pacific.

Now it looks like he got it exactly backwards.

In recent years, evidence has emerged to suggest that Polynesians made it to the New World well before Columbus -- and returned home.

"The majority of people who got to America probably walked across Beringia," says University of Hawaii geneticist Rebecca Cann, referring to the Bering Strait land bridge that existed during the last Ice Age. "But more and more people are thinking there's a group of native Americans that may have closer genetic ties to Pacific Islanders. That would make a lot of sense. Why would the Polynesians go to Easter Island and stop?"

Genetic studies of Indians in North and South America show that some are linked to Polynesians, Cann says. While Polynesians and native Americans both have ancestors from Asia, that's not enough to explain the similarities, which suggest "direct but low levels of gene flow across the entire Pacific ocean," she says.

The related tribes include the Cayapa of Ecuador, the Mapuche, Huilleche and Atacameno of Chile, and the Nuu-Chal-Nulth of British Columbia.

Thor Heyerdahl: His balsa raft
may have been heading in the
wrong direction.

Stephen Jett, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of California at Davis, has made a mini-career out of following the evidence of trans-Pacific contacts before Columbus. He led a ground-breaking forum on the subject at the 1997 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The voyages of the double-hulled sailing canoes Hokulea and Hawaii Loa show that Polynesians certainly had the necessary watercraft and navigational abilities to cross the Pacific, Jett says. But other kinds of boats or rafts could have made it as well, he adds.

"Prevailing winds and currents -- such as the westerlies and the Japan-North Pacific current -- would have provided the most feasible trans-oceanic routes, but the Polynesians, at least, explored the Pacific against prevailing winds," he says.

Other intriguing arguments:

>> Corn and other American crops appear to have been common in ancient China and India. Carl Johannessen of the University of Oregon says American peanuts found in two provinces in China date to 2,300 B.C. "When scientists see the likely presence of American maize, sunflower, annonas (custard apples), peanut, squashes, yam bean, sweet potato, chili pepper, grain amaranths and several other crop species in Asia prior to 1,500 A.D., in addition to all the other data assembled, they will virtually be forced to accept that exchanges across the oceans occurred early," he says.

>> The Chinese took centuries to perfect their carved jade artwork, but strikingly similar jade pieces appear to have been fashioned almost overnight among the Olmec Indians of Mexico around 1,200 B.C. "Around the time of the collapse of the Shang Dynasty caused by the invasion of the Zhou tribes from western China, the Olmec culture -- 'mother culture' of Mesoamerica -- appears to have burst into being in Mexico fully grown," observes Paul Shao of Iowa State University.

>> Many words are similar in the languages of the Pacific islanders and American natives. Mary Ritchie Key of the University of California at Irvine has noted these examples: woman is kini in the Solomon Islands and kuna in Guarani (Paraguay); mountain is mauna in Hawaiian and mana in Panoan (Brazil, Peru); hill is kolo in early Polynesian and qolyu in Aymara (Bolivia, Peru, Chile); hair is huru in Maori, hu-huru in Rapa Nui, huluhulu (body hair) in Hawaiian and hu in Puinave (Colombia); sun is raa in Maori, ra in Tuamotuan and ra in Kaingang (Brazil). Also, the word for sweet potato is kumara in Maori and kumar in Peru.

>> Among the people of Kiribati, notes Jett, there is a tradition of ancestral voyages to the east that encountered "a continuous wall of land." Called Makaia or Maiawa, the land is "not an island but a vast country with high mountains and rivers, which lies further east than all the islands."

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