DNA suggests that people from America had a role in populating the Pacific islands

How Polynesia was initially populated has been up for debate and speculated by scholars for many years. But a new study has found evidence and suggests that Indigenous people in South America travelled over 7,000 kilometres of open sea to reach eastern Polynesia more than 800 years ago. 

The study, led by Alexander Ionnidis and Andres Moreno-Estrada, compared lengths of DNA segments. The results implied that these travels back and forth from South America to eastern Polynesia occurred over 800 years ago. This is the first study to offer genetic evidence surrounding this debate. 

Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer, initially tested this idea of South Americans settling on the Pacific islands in 1947, in the Kon-Tiki expedition. However, the universal thought during that time was that Asians were the ones to populate eastern Polynesia around 1,000 years ago. Therefore, the idea of South Americans having a role in the peopling of Polynesia was not widely accepted and continually dismissed.  

This new study also potentially shows how the ancestral populations of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, travelled to South America and returned with sweet potatoes. The genetic evidence that came from this study then shows that those ancestors could have brought back along with them, to most of the eastern Polynesian islands, South American DNA. 

Although the DNA tested in the study was retrieved from present-day individuals, Moreno-Estrada has argued that only a larger genetic study can confirm whether or not South Americans did in fact initially travel to and populate Polynesia. There also needs to be further study into how these findings fit into the already known studies such as the ethno-historical records and evidence of plant distributions. 

Furthermore, Nature has suggested that because this recent study has analysed the sweet-potato plants’ origins in Polynesia, there should be further research done to assess the potential voyaging between islands and the find out how many voyagers took place. There are also some remaining questions that require further DNA evidence and studies to be carried out, for example extracting DNA from ancient bones.

Still, Ioannidis et al.’s findings were revolutionary in how scientists can now view the early presence of Native South American’s in eastern Polynesia. 

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Lauren Bramwell

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