Research

Chicken bone suggests Polynesians ‘discovered’ Americas

July 26, 2007

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By Stuart Colcleugh

SFU-trained archeologist Alice Storey’s discovery that a chicken bone recovered along Chile’s Pacific coast dates to a time before European contact is the most tangible evidence yet that Polynesians landed in the New World long before Christopher Columbus’ famous landfall in 1492.

Storey, a University of Auckland PhD student with an honours BA and an MA in archeology from SFU, undertook ancient DNA analysis of the bone unearthed by a team led by archeologist Daniel Quiroz from Chile’s Universidad de Valpariso.

The bone directly dates to between AD 1304 and 1424, which is in line with thermoluminsence dates from pottery found in the same archeological site, El Arenal-1, on Chile’s Arauco Peninsula about 400 km south of Santiago.

Their findings, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent "the first unequivocal evidence for a pre-European introduction of chickens to South America and indicate, through ancient DNA evidence, that the likely source of that introduction was Polynesia."

The research also offers "valuable data for researchers concerned with the loss of genetic variation in modern domestic stocks," writes Storey, the study’s lead author.

"This is a very exciting and significant discovery," says SFU archeologist David Burley, "and it expands on the discoveries Alice made during her master’s degree, examining the mitochondrial DNA of prehistoric chicken remains from archaeological sites in Tonga."

Storey matched the bone’s ancient DNA sequence to ancient samples Burley excavated in Tonga and to other archaeological chicken bones from around the Pacific provided by an international team of researchers.

Storey’s team is not the first to suggest that South Pacific seafarers arrived in the Americas before Europeans. Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl proved it was possible in 1947 when he made his famous voyage from Peru to Polynesia aboard his primitive Kon-Tiki raft.

But as Storey observes, no solid "archaeological evidence for Polynesian contact with the Americas has been reported before now."

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