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K. Kris Hirst

Polynesian Seafaring to the American Continents

By April 25, 2010

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The notion that Polynesian seafarers reached the American continents has been kicking around archaeological circles for a very long time. Popularized by Thor Heyerdahl's raft KonTiki, the idea of trans-pacific migrations faded into obscurity in the 1970s, primarily because (well, my opinion anyway) that the emphasis was on Polynesian colonization of South America. Those hyper-diffusionist theories were outmoded and there is plenty of evidence that the American cultural groups got along very well indeed without the Polynesians.

Polynesian triangle with points of possible American cultural contact
Polynesian triangle with points of possible American cultural contact. Base map:
Inductive Load; edited by Kris Hirst

However, there is growing, if patchy, evidence suggesting that Polynesian seafarers did reach the South American coast by ca. 1000. At a session at the 2010 Society for American Archaeology meetings, Alice Storey and colleagues reported on several new strands of evidence. I've been able to corral some recent publications and have assembled some of the new evidence reported to date. Look for more in the future.

Possible Polynesian-American Contact Topics


April 27, 2010 at 12:56 am
(1) HeavyDuty says:

Polynesian languages are known for repeated syllables, so Lake Titicaca (Peru) or Lake Poopo (Bolivia) might suggest connections?

April 27, 2010 at 4:52 am
(2) Josh says:

Syllable repetition (reduplication) is extremely common all over the world; it is a standard linguistic device that is not at all unique to the languages of Polynesia or the supposed contact zone in South America. So, I’m afraid this doesn’t show anything.

April 27, 2010 at 5:58 am
(3) farang says:

In point of fact, regarding the indigenous people of South America: “there is plenty of evidence that the American cultural groups got along very well indeed without the Polynesians. ” has absolutely nothing to do with whether Polynesians reached South American shores, and is really misleading gibberish.

In fact, there is now solid evidence of hominids, not even “homo sapien sapiens” reaching Crete before Neandertals. 200,000-300,000 b.c. is the dating of the site. They reached it by boat.

In point of fact, all the stone megaliths throughout the world, Asia, Europe and Africa, show a distinct pattern of constellations etched into them (cupmarks, maybe for candles?), showing these humans @ 6000 years ago knew how to travel by the stars, and left their “signature” in the stone megaliths they erected. And no one can explain away the cocaine and tobacco residues found in Egyptian mummies except by trade with South America.

And Josh, you are incorrect: Phonetic drift and place names, especially of water (rivers, lakes, oceans, etc) do indeed display historical population migration.

Example: Celtic names or their derivatives abound throughout Europe (Danube for instance echos the Danu, the people that worshiped the goddess Dani). They might even be the source for the “Tribe of Dan” found in that collection of myths called The Old Testament.

You are way off base to state what you did. WAY off.

April 27, 2010 at 2:25 pm
(4) ed says:

Their is evidence that a hominid species was traveling by boat to Crete in the time span mentioned by farang. But this evidence is still sketchy and has not come close to being studied in detail. The authors comment about polonesians “not being needed” was simply meant to say—their is very little evidence of contact between polonesians and Americans—especially contact which may have changed American culture. As far as trade with Egypt—please!! Lets not jump from that limb you were already out on. The Pharonic Egyptian culture had long reached its end before Polonesians had begun populating the Pacific. And their is no evidence whatsoever that the Egyptians had seacraft sturdy enough to make a Pacific or Atlantic journey. They had all they could do to reach the land of Punt(Sudan probably) and they may(MAY)have made the occasional journey along the shore of the Indian Ocean as far as India—-but there is very little evidence of even this. The Celtic people were Indo European people who would have reached Europe from the Russian steps—–the “tribe of Dan” if any such thing every existed (the bible is a highly inaccurate and imprecise record of history) would have been a semitic people—-all of whom trace their roots to either the eastern or western Arabia.

April 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm
(5) Pondering says:

It seems to me, that the modern historical reference to philosophies and paradigms regarding Polynesian traffic in prehistory is a pertinent introduction to new findings, especially if the findings mimic, in some regard, the hyper-diffusionist perspectives that have been contested, held in doubt, or dismissed by academic rigor. The author properly bounded the ideas of the past and quickly moved on to address the currently active data and ideas.
A careful read of the entire sentence that farang questions, reveals that the quoted reference, “there is plenty of evidence that the American cultural groups got along very well indeed without the Polynesians,” refers to hyper-diffusionist theories which included in their core premise, the idea that Mesoamerican cultures needed the claimed diffusion, whether it be Polynesian, African or Atlantian, in order to develop their own cultures. I don’t read the author as saying that the Mesoamericans “needed” Polynesian influence or didn’t, I think instead the author was carefully avoiding the conclusions that were drawn by the hyper-diffusionist perspectives of the past, that were dismissed through academic rigor in times past, while introducing the current data the supports the presence of Polynesian peoples in Mesoamerica.
Revisiting ideas and circulating perspectives abound in life; it is a natural and important element of journalism to acknowledge the past, and appropriately give attribution to the past ideas, while reporting the current ideas in a way that illuminates the differences. In this case the news is that, while there is currently developing, a body of evidence and some theories regarding the presence of Polynesians in Mesoamerica, none of the researchers seem to be extrapolating that this presence affected cultural developments in profound ways or that the presence of Polynesians in Mesoamerica “proves” that the Mesoamerican populous is of Polynesian ancestry.

April 28, 2010 at 8:10 am
(6) Kris Hirst says:

Exactly, Pondering. The evidence is becoming clear that while Polynesian seafarers may have landed on the coasts of South (and, less likely, North) America, the interactions were not particularly influential with respect to the cultures that were living there. The hyper-diffusionists were wrong when they implied that cultural contact necessarily means cultural influence or control.

If you read the articles I’ve linked to in the blog, you will see some of the evidence of that.


April 28, 2010 at 8:52 am
(7) ed says:

I agree with the last two comments. in my earlier comment I said their was little evidence of polonesian/meso american contact—-and there really is “little” evidence. Which is by no means “no evidence”. But so far, it appears that what contact there was did not change or influence american culture. I also wanted to challenge the comments made about linguistic similiarities between polonesian and prehistoric american language. I don’t believe you can make judgements based upon superficial similiarities regarding number of syllabols or syllabol repetition. I believe that words of different languages portraying the same idea need to be compared to see what the root word is. If the root appears to be similiar for ideas that the cultures should share in common for instance “water” then similiarity exists. I don’t believe for one moment that chance encounters between poloniesians and south Americans would lead to the name of an important geographic feature taking on a name given it by interlopers.

April 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm
(8) Pondering says:

On the other hand, chickens are important… I cannot imagine my life without chickens. Eggs and Bacon, Southern Fried Chicken… It is hard to discount the impact of introducing chickens and their feral presence as a food source. Maybe it’s not El Dorado, but I am willing to risk a chicken salad sandwich that chickens have made a greater impact upon Mesoamerican culture than how they pronounce Hola hA (ok Aloh Ha?) Was that a Spanish influence or a darkly hidden Polynesian greeting refashioned to hide the aliens from the western isles?

April 28, 2010 at 6:18 pm
(9) Josh says:

Farang: When a group migrates to a new area, they very often do retain older place names. But the idea suggested here is that established populations in South America took place names – and not for little hills or creeks, but very large bodies of water – from visitors who were not numerous, never displaced them, may not have even settled, and otherwise had little if any lasting influence. I’m not familiar with any such occurrences, are you?

Also, the poster was suggesting this idea merely on the basis of repeated syllables, which is far too common to mean anything, as I said. If s/he were pointing out that these place names, and many others, did not fit into the languages of the indigenous peoples in those areas, and OTOH they showed striking, greater-than-chance similarities with Polynesian languages, including plausible meanings in them, s/he might have the beginning of a case.

I also fail to see why you have to throw in an insult against believing Jews and Christians in your post by denigrating something they hold holy – is that supposed to somehow compensate for the silliness and irrelevance of your example? European nations and Israelites, including the tribe of Dan, already have their own histories and etymologies. Superfluous and ridiculous linkages like these stem from a desire to elevate Europeans by claiming that they actually carry on the legacy of the Israelites, and/or to disenfranchise the Israelites/Jews. And even if there were some truth there … it would still have no bearing on a couple of place names in SA that happen to have repeated syllables, just like thousands of words in thousands of languages do.

April 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm
(10) ed says:

Lol…it appears Josh and I are on the same page on this one. In the matter of Celtic origins I would like to point out a really good book named “the horse, the wheel and language” by David Anthony. It has some archeological jargon that can be at times tough to get your head around in total. But it is otherwise extremely fascinating and there is some great new evidence about indo european culture.

May 1, 2010 at 11:26 am
(11) Jeff says:

I find it odd that “scientists” have a simple, pat answer for how the North American and South American continent was peopled. They came over on the land bridge. End of story. That is such simplistic thinking. That over a period of thousands of years one group of people populated North and South America. Remember that 3,000 years ago the oceans were 300 feet lower. That would mean more exposed land, right? Not just the land bridge but everywhere.

May 2, 2010 at 11:55 pm
(12) Excavate says:

Australia (where I live) had the odd distant adventurer reach here, with little or no impact, before it was colonized. Why should it be extraordinary for Polynesians to travel to South America when their ancestors had already settled MADAGASCAR? I don’t think it’s too incredible to assume that humans – always curious – have sometimes traveled VERY far from home, but whether that translates as long term influence? I think most of these hapless adventurers came and left without a trace. It usually needs a bit of violence and larger populations to make a long-term impact.

May 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm
(13) ed says:

The simple fact is that the pacific ocean and the atlantic ocean are “nearly” insurmountable barriers to travel. Think about how long it took western Europeans, who were incredible mariners with the very best of water vessels for thousands of years, to reach the new world. There is recent evidence that at least some of the people in the new world were descendants of extreme northern Europeans who traveled over the top of the world to get to our contintent. This evidence is spotty but would go a long way to explain two apparently very different native american language sources. A second point is that no one is saying that the odd person set off course from his intended destination could not have landed in the Americas—-but only that there is very little evidence that this was a common journey made by many polonesians—-and that the lack of evidence speaks volumes about the truth of the matter. It is often says that absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence—–while this is somewhat true—it is not an all encompassing axiom. Some times absence of evidence has no other choice but to mean evidence of absence

May 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm
(14) ed says:

The lower ocean levels during the last glacial maximum does leave open possibilities of paths of travel no longer existing—-but it doesn’t mean that “magic doors opened into new dimensions” like alice in wonderland. The depths of oceans is pretty well known—and scientists have a pretty good idea about which paths were open to travel during this period and which were not. Also, dna evidence from the genographic project has lent agreeance to the standard model by showing that most “aboriginal” americans have a north eastern asian source—and appears in no way to show a southeastern asian source.

May 21, 2010 at 2:33 am
(15) DDeden says:

The word water with endless variants is common everywhere, from Khoi akwa to Hittite watar to Ainu waka to Papuan & Kusunda wi’de etc. The Malayo-Polynesian Barito river people of Kalimantan Borneo voyaged west to Madagascar 1ka and established a colony because no-one was there. I think it is (narrowly) plausible that a similar group from there, perhaps later, went to Samoa for trade, then Hawaii for trade, then northeast to coastal northern California to seek the source of the giant redwood logs (which sometimes floated ashore in Hawaii) during a period of overcrowding and deforestation (like Easter Island had), and upon meeting with natives, traded for foods while going south along the coast to the Chumash isles, then continuing on further south until hitting the westward flowing equatorial current. Humboldt Bay was originally called Kuala Walu and Wiki (Qualle Walloo, Weekee). Perhaps coincidentally, but in Malay-Indonesian, Kuala = estuary, in Samoan, Walu = bay, in Hawaiian, Wiki = swift current; these precisely describe Humboldt Bay, CA, rich in coastal redwood rainforest (parallel to the uniquely giant dipterocarp forests of Borneo). Humboldt Bay has unusual native tribal group affiliations, the Hupa, Yurok, Wiyot are closest related to very far-flung relatives (Iroquois?, Athapaskan/Apache) and also unusual geology (tsunamis, triple-junction tectonics) so its hard to track the possible encounters of the past.
Coincidentally, last month I was telling a friend (an AFS student from Kalimantan Borneo) this info while we sat eating curry rice on a deck overlooking the Bay. Her response was “Indah!” (Beautiful!) What comes around…

May 22, 2010 at 1:04 am
(16) DDeden says:

A recent paper on S. East Asian chicken genetics and domestication:

January 24, 2012 at 11:29 pm
(17) paleodetective says:

Geneticist Spencer Wells (Ph.D.) did as complete a genetic study that took some 8 years, sampling peoples from most ALL possible paths of migrations for the origins and the establishments of all MASS populations. This was documented in the Nat Geo video Journey of Man. He found NO evidence of Canadian, West Coast, Central Plains SW or SE Native populations of North America and Mexico being anything but NE “Euro-Asian” peoples. PERIOD, case closed. The Research was done using DNA from the y-chromosome, and the evidence is irrefutable because the DNA from the y-chromosome (Male) is the ONLY marker information that is passed on without change from male to male heir, unlike DNA from the x-chromosome.

I have talked with Spencer on a few occasions at meetings and the research was not complete in parts of South America to eliminate some remote claims of population mix influences from other migrations. However there have been others. Such as the Japanese did considerable research on an irrefutable link between an obscure genetically unique Tuberculosis strain that is only found among the Ainu Japanese people and in PERU.

I think the only blade of hope you Polynesian to S America hopefuls have is a never proved claim that the Ona people of the Tierra del Fuego region of the Argentina archipelago MIGHT be SE Asian. Emphasis on MIGHT BE. However with less than five pureblood Ona and five pureblood Yahgans people exist in present day Tierra del Fuego, and everyone else so mixed with successive immigrations, proving it (if anyone cares) would be near impossible.

I’m afraid all these absurd theories about S. Americans in Polynesia and vice-versa, Polynesians in Madagascar, Ocean going Egyptians, ridiculous reverse migrations, are all the work of the the nuts that appear on or call into kooky George Noory’s “Liars Club” red-eye radio show “Coast to Ghost”.

July 13, 2012 at 9:43 am
(18) john dunn says:

Look closely at the vast difference in the anatomy & ethnic differences in darker skin, shorter indigineous peoples in South America, as opposed to lighter skin, taller, etc. North American indigineous peoples….also the time it would have took to travel all the way from the Bering Sea to tip of South America…and populate it by so much….add to fact Polynesians mad it to Hawaii & Easter Island, both much further from land…than those Islands to the Americans….I believe Polynesians mad it to South America…not North…and many of the population in the South were their decendents or a mixture

November 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm
(19) Cha'uyala says:

The similarities in food, home construction and weaving patterns between the indigenous people of Northwestern Ecuador (the part of South America that I know well) and those of the Asian Pacific region are striking. It is impossible that this knowledge could have been carried across the Bering Strait all the way down to South America during a long migration. There had to have been some other vector.

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