A new genetic analysis shows that Thor Heyerdahl’s hypothesis of pre-Columbian contacts between Indians and Polynesians was correct. The inhabitants of the New World were not isolated by the seas and repeatedly sailed for many thousands of kilometers. Apparently, this is exactly how American plants and a number of other cultural features got into Polynesia. Alas, although the theory of Thor Heyerdahl won, but this was not fully known even in Nature – where they published a new genetic study. Let’s try to understand why it happened.
By the 1940s, scientists had a strong belief in the uniqueness of the Polynesian culture – however, as well as the culture of speakers of Austronesian languages in general. The ancestors of these people from Southeast Asia sailed in different directions: the eastern Austronesians settled Madagascar, others remained on the territory of modern Indonesia, and the third colonized the Pacific Islands from Hawaii and Easter Island to New Zealand. From west to east, the extent of their colonization exceeded 25 thousand kilometers.
Their culture was indeed unique: being technologically in the Stone Age, the same Polynesians came to catamarans – hydrodynamically much more effective than single-hull sailing ships of European construction. Already Magellan noted that non-European sailors literally cut circles around European ships sailing at full speed.
But in the same 1940s, Thor Heyerdahl, a young Norwegian traveler with an incomplete higher education, drew attention to the fact that in this culture there is something reminiscent of South American Indians.
On Easter Island and a small number of other Polynesian islands there were huge stone statues – despite the fact that for the Polynesians in general, this is completely uncharacteristic. He also drew attention to the cult of the human bird that exists on Easter Island and in South America. And the fact that sweet potato – “Kumara” in the Polynesian languages and “Kumar” in the languages of the South American Indians – and tetraploid cotton in Polynesia were clearly before the arrival of Europeans. Moreover, both of these cultures come from the New World.
It is worth recalling: not only sweet potato was borrowed. Tetraploid cotton, bred in the pre-Columbian times in the New World and unknown in the Old, pumpkins from which water containers were made in South America and Polynesia, a semi-wild pineapple and a number of other crops also got to the Pacific islands before the advent of Europeans.
Heyerdahl considered that all these borrowings are the result of contacts. And these contacts happened at the initiative of the Indians, and not the Polynesian sailors. He noted that due to the prevailing winds and currents from the islands of Polynesia to South America, it is much more difficult to get than in the opposite direction.
The Norwegian suggested that long before Columbus, South American Indians more than once visited the islands many thousands of kilometers from their shores. And this means that they were advanced sailors. To demonstrate this, in 1947 he and his associates sailed from South America to Polynesia eight thousand kilometers in a hundred days. This was done on a traditional Indian-style balsa raft, previously considered only suitable for short coastal voyages.
As you might guess, the ideas of a person with seven semesters of university education did not find wide support among professional scientists. Firstly, the raft with its huge hydrodynamic resistance is traditionally considered not very suitable for long trips – in contrast to the cutting waves of Polynesian catamarans.
Secondly, it is clear that the Polynesians are a culture that has accumulated enough knowledge for ultra-long sea voyages. For example, they knew the starry sky very well and effectively maneuvered against the headwind. The very idea that the Indians could have done something similar seemed extremely unusual in the 1940s. In fact, if they could swim thousands of kilometers from home, then where are their overseas settlement colonies?
Over the years, attempts to test the Heyerdahl hypothesis have yielded mixed results. Some genetic studies have shown that Polynesians have impurities of Native American blood – but very recent ones. Moreover, in terms of the composition of the impurity genes, these are similar to those Indians whom Europeans brought to the Polynesian islands as forced labor.
Other studies generally showed among the Polynesians only European impurities – and no Native American ones. Additionally, the problem was complicated by the fact that DNA from the bones of the long-dead inhabitants of Polynesia can be analyzed very infrequently. Unfortunately, deoxyribonucleic acid decomposes too quickly in a humid climate.
But in 2020, an international group of researchers used several methods that circumvent these difficulties. First, they took DNA from 807 people from 17 Polynesian and 15 Native American populations, significantly expanding the search sample. Secondly, they tried not only to abstractly find similar genetic sequences from both but also to find the longest stretches of DNA in the genomes of Polynesians and Indians without differences between themselves.
It turned out that the Polynesian genes did contain impurities from the Indians from Peru and Chile, but they were distributed very unevenly among the Polynesian population. Some of these genes had many, while others did not. Polynesian traditional communities are arranged in such a way that the genes in them circulate quite freely. This means that the “Peruvian” and “Chilean” tracks in DNA could appear only relatively recently – otherwise they would be distributed evenly among the Polynesians.
At the same time, traces of Indian peoples such as senu, from the territory of modern Colombia, or even more northern ones, from Central America were found in the genes of the latter. Their genes were distributed much more evenly. Using algorithms, the mixture between them and the Eastern Polynesians was dated between 1150 and 1380. Sena as a single cultural community existed between 200 BC and 1600 AD – that is, until the Spanish conquest and the epidemics it brought, which mowed down the bulk of these people.
But that was not all. The most unusual thing was that for different regions of Eastern Polynesia, the most probable dates for the mixing of the Polynesian genes with the hay genes were very different. On the Marquesas Islands this happened around 1150, on the islands of Palizer (French overseas possessions) and Mangarev – around 1230, and on Easter Island – around 1380.
This means that the scale of the pre-Columbian voyages of the South American Indians was wider than previously thought in the scientific literature – and much closer to the estimates of Heyerdahl. It was he who first drew attention to the fact that traces of stone monuments are not only on Easter Island but also on other islands of Eastern Polynesia. And he suggested that this is also the result of cultural borrowing from the indigenous population of South America.
What is especially interesting is that on the Marquesas Islands (and Easter Island), South Americans are more likely to appear earlier than the Polynesians. This means that the first colonization of part of Polynesia could be exactly American, and only then the Polynesians sailed to the same islands.
The conclusion is quite unexpected at once for two reasons. Firstly, no one in the scientific community has ever considered South American Indians (Heyerdahl, as we show below, does not quite belong to it) as a group capable of carrying out long-range maritime colonization. Meanwhile, both Easter Island and the Marquesas Islands are thousands of kilometers away from South America.
Secondly, it turns out that the data of Polynesian folklore is correct – that by the time the “short-eared” Polynesians arrived on Easter Island, some “long-eared” people were already living there. Heyerdahl correlated the latter with the South American Indians.
Despite the unexpectedness of such conclusions for mainstream science, they, at the same time, explain a lot. It is quite obvious that the creation of huge stone statues or the cultivation of sweet potatoes are such cultural skills that are easily imported only together with their carriers. But to sail for a short time to South America and learn how to cultivate sweet potatoes or trim huge stone statues and move them for kilometers without wheels and mechanisms is quite difficult.
If South Americans themselves sailed to the future Polynesian islands and laid the foundations of such cultural traditions as the cultivation of sweet potatoes and the creation of moai (stone statues), then it becomes much easier to explain their appearance in Polynesia.
Why scientific correctness is not all that is needed to defeat a scientific hypothesis
Genetic research seems to confirm Heyerdahl’s hypothesis formulated many decades ago. But if we read that the Western scientific community writes on this subject, we will be surprised to find that they don’t think so. A popular article in Nature reports:
“Heyerdahl … and his idea that Polynesia was originally populated by South Americans was normally criticized by scientists”.
In other words, they tell us: the Norwegian explorer was only partially right because he thought that Polynesia was first inhabited by Indians, not Polynesians. Meanwhile, the current work of geneticists shows that the settlement was mixed: only a small part of the East Polynesian islands could be first settled by South Americans.
The interpretation of a pop article in Nature is not an exception, but a rule. The same idea is repeated literally by all Western popular science publications. Let’s open an arbitrary qualitative one, for example, Ars Technica:
“Tour Heyerdahl considered the Kon-Tiki expedition evidence that the Polynesians were originally South Americans. Today we know that this is not so”.
We can see the same thing in many other places. The problem with this opinion of the English-speaking scientist is that Heyerdahl never believed that the Indians first settled in Polynesia, or that the Polynesians were Indians. Never ever.
Let’s open a collection of his articles on the problem – and we will easily see this. The Norwegian believed that Polynesia was populated by two different groups, one of which was clearly Austronesian and the other Indian. And this, in fact, is precisely the picture that genetics have now confirmed in 2020. In theory, the Heyerdahl hypothesis won.
But really not. Any hypothesis – even if it is better than all others is consistent with the facts – can win only in one case: if the scientific world is fully aware that it exists.
But who read Heyerdahl these days? Authors of popular articles in Nature? Of course not. The Norwegian has never been in good standing in the scientific community. There is no scientific school that relies on his theory. Simply put, in Nature and other places, his hypothesis is being disassembled as at one time Pasternak in the USSR: from the words “comrades whom we have no reason not to trust”.
The Norwegian was not accepted “in a party”. Those who described his theories from the academic department to students — who later grew up and began to write popular articles in Nature — did not particularly like Heyerdahl, which is why they didn’t get into his articles too much.
The Heyerdahl problem did not appear in the English-speaking scientific world yesterday. Already in the Soviet afterword to the collection of his scientific articles translated into Russian, it is precisely noted:
“It is appropriate to emphasize here that this [Heyerdahl’s] hypothesis is often referred to as some in the heat of the argument, and some by misunderstanding among the American, that is, those according to which the ancestors of the Polynesians were the natives of the American continent. In fact (and it is not so difficult to verify this by reading the collection), one of the important advantages and advantages of the Heyerdahl hypothesis is precisely that its author managed to overcome the one-sidedness and limitations of both the “Asian” and “American” hypotheses of the settlement of Polynesia. In fact, for the first time in the history of the problem, Heyerdahl equally takes into account and explains both the Asian and American components in the anthropological type, language and culture of the Polynesians”.
These words were written in Russian in 1969, more than half a century ago – but since then absolutely nothing has changed. The Norwegian hypothesis is objectively true, but subjectively in the English-speaking world, there has not yet been a single popularizer who would know about this.
None of those who popularly wrote off a new work in Nature simply do not know the real essence of the Heyerdahl hypothesis. And this despite the fact that the most scientific article with the analysis of genomes quite accurately states: “… Thor Heyerdahl suggested that Native Americans and Polynesians could come into contact”. From this, it is obvious: the authors of a scientific article understand that the Norwegian never thought that “the Polynesians were originally South Americans.” Or that the Indians were the first population of Polynesia.
Why do the authors of popular articles do not know this significant fact and present the Norwegian hypothesis distorted? We could limit ourselves to the words: “People work in Nature, and people tend to make mistakes” (and the author of these lines, too). But this will be only part of the answer. Indeed, people rarely make mistakes on some topics, and often on some. Moreover, the Heyerdahl hypothesis refers to the second type. Why is she so unlucky with the correct perception in the press?
We live in a world where people are less and less willing to concentrate on long texts. Heyerdahl formulated his hypothesis in the middle of the last century when it was not a problem for the majority of educated people to read a thousand hundred characters (the approximate length of a series of his articles). At that time, scientific works often appeared in the form of monograph books – and today this is happening less and less, because there is simply no one to read these monographs more often. Many scientific journals even recommend to authors of articles not to exceed the volume of four pages – so that the audience coverage of the scientists themselves is wider.
In such circumstances, people are often forced to touch on works that they themselves, in the original source, have never read. Where should they get data on their contents? From the same place as the typical one, for example, a Paleolithic hunter had to take data on what he had never seen – that is, from “knowledgeable people.”
Thousands of years ago it was a shaman – and today a university professor. But the problem is that this professor did not appear on Earth in a flying saucer, but grew up in the same society as all of us. Therefore, he just as well knows only what is inside his rather narrow “capsule of interests”. Heyerdahl has never been so common as to enter the capsule of interest of a noticeable number of university professors.
Therefore, in principle, there is no chance of an adequate recognition of the victory of his theory. Which, of course, does not detract from the fact that she won. Just no one will know about this victory: in English there is no scientific priest who would talk about it.