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New Study Shows Native Americans Traveled to Easter Island Before European Contact

New findings from the journal, Current Biology, indicate that Native Americans had visited Easter Island before Columbus sailed to the Americas.

New findings from the journal, Current Biology, indicate that Native Americans had visited Easter Island before Columbus sailed to the Americas. The study, “Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Suggest Pre-European Admixture with Native Americans,” was conducted by a team of geneticists from the Natural History Museum of Denmark and published on November 3, 2014. The scientists analyzed genetic markers for 27 native Rapanui (Easter Islanders) and found that 8 percent of their genetic admixture came from American Indians. The study’s co-authors, Eske Willerslev and Anna-Sapfo Malaspina, argue that “evidence has been brought forward supporting the possibility of Native American contact prior to the European ‘discovery’ of the island in AD 1722.”

The article follows on the heels of other genetic studies that have linked Polynesians to American Indians, yet these earlier studies had largely been dismissed by archaeologists, usually advocates of the “Bering Strait Theory” of the populating of the Americas, who believe that ancient peoples were too “primitive” to sail the oceans. As early as 1991, University of Hawaii geneticist Rebecca Cann proposed that DNA evidence suggested an ancient contact between Polynesians and American Indians, but she was met with a swift and fierce rebuttal. Cann, a pioneer among geneticists who developed the concept of “Mitochondrial Eve” and the currently accepted “Out of Africa” theory of modern human origins, in turn condemned the “dogmatic” stance of her critics.

Related: The Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 1 How Dogma Trumped Science

More recent studies, for example, “The Polynesian Gene Pool: an Early Contribution by Amerindians to Easter Island,” published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 2012; and a 2013 article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Identification of Polynesian mtDNA Haplogroups in Remains of Botocudo Amerindians from Brazil;” have made it more difficult to simply respond with dogma. Yet many critics of Polynesian-American Indian contact, such as Matthew E. Hurles from the University of Cambridge, continued to dismiss the genetic data, arguing that any admixture found in previous studies was the result of the Peruvian slave trade in Polynesia promoted by European slave traders during the 19th century.

In this new study, the Denmark geneticists genotyped and analyzed more than 650,000 SNP (Single-nucleotide polymorphism) genetic markers from 27 Easter Islanders and “found statistical support for Native American admixture dating to AD 1280–1495.” Willerslev and Malaspina argue that the evidence suggests that the “Native American admixture event was dated to 19–23 generations ago,” long before the slave trade and well before European contact. In addition, they found European admixture with the Easter Islanders as “dating to AD 1850–1895,” in line with historical evidence and far later than American Indian admixture. The ancestry of the Easter Islanders today is 76 percent Polynesian, 8 percent Native American, and 16 percent European.

Although the distance from Easter Island to South America is over 2,300 miles, the evidence for early contact between Polynesians and Native Americans has always been strong. For example, the sweet potato, clearly indigenous to the Americas, was found by European explorers to also be common across Polynesia, including Hawaii and New Zealand. As early as 1837, scientists such as John Dunmore Lang, in his book, Origins and Migrations of the Polynesian Nation, proposed Polynesian voyages to America. One hundred and ten years later, Thor Heyerdahl’s highly celebrated voyage from South America to Polynesia in the light raft Kon-Tiki, proved that ocean navigation by Native Americans were eminently possible, however Heyerdahl’s lack of scientific credentials meant his voyage made no scientific impact.

Recent studies of the DNA of sweet potatoes appear to confirm that the Polynesians had cultivated it before contact with Europeans, strong evidence of American Indian-Polynesian contact. A 2013 study by a French team, led by Caroline Roullier and Vincent Lebot, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the DNA of sweet potatoes collected during the voyages of James Cook (who sailed the Pacific in the years 1768-1779). Using these early and thus uncontaminated specimens, the researchers argued that their “results provide strong support for prehistoric transfer(s) of sweet potato from South America (Peru-Ecuador region) into Polynesia.”

Although Willerslev and Malaspina do not speculate as to whether the Native Americans sailed to Easter Island or the Polynesians made voyages back and forth, the study currently indicates that a voyage from South America is a distinct possibility. More importantly, the new evidence now makes it more difficult to dismiss early Native American-Polynesian contact, and opens up the possibility of other future discoveries. According to Malaspinas, “the findings remind us that early human populations extensively explored the planet,” overturning many long-held conventions. She adds that, “textbook versions of human colonization events—the peopling of the Americas, for example—need to be re-evaluated utilizing genomic data.”