Abstract: Polynesian Contacts with the New World

Lecturer: Terry Jones

The possibility that Polynesian voyagers reached the shores of the New World before Columbus has been considered by scientists and non-scientists alike for nearly two centuries.  In North America where the case for contact has focused on sewn-plank boats and bone and shell fishhooks (which show strong similarities with Polynesian technologies), the possibility was discussed regularly between the 1910s and the 1950s.  In South America the case for contact was considered as far back as the early 1800s based on fishhook styles, sewn-plank boats and chickens on the coast of Chile, and the sweet potato and associated liguistic referents in the north.  By the late 1970s, the possibility of contact especially in the northern hemisphere had disappeared almost entirely from mainstream scholarly discourse due to shifting theoretical priorities.  Benefitting from enhanced perspectives on Polynesian voyaging capabilities that emerged in the 1990s. a number of scholars have rediscovered the long-dormant case for Polynesian contact and a flood of sophisticated new research has been completed on the issue in the last five years.  In this talk I'll review the evidence for Polynesian contact with the Americas in the northern and southern hemispheres and ponder the question of why American (and some Pacific) scholarscontinue to dismiss the possibility of such contacts even though the passages involved were well within the capabilities of Polynesian seafarers.


Short bibliography and website on lecture topic:


Anderson, A. 2006. Polynesian seafaring and American horizons. American Antiquity 71:759-763.

Arnold, J.E. 2007. Credit where credit is due: The history of the Chumash oceangoing plank canoes. American Antiquity 72:196-209.

Ballard, C., P. Brown, R.M. Bourke, and T. Harwood, The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal, The University of Sydney, Australia.

Davies, N. 1979. Voyageurs to the New World.  New York: William Morrow and Company.

Dixon, R.B. 1918. Culture Contact and Migration versus Independent Origin: A Pleas for More Light. American Anthropologist 20:124-28.

1933. Contacts with America across the Southern Pacific. In The American Aborigines. D. Jenness, ed.: pp.313-353. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Finney, B. 1994. Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gongora, J., N.J. Rawlence, V.A. Mobegi, H. Jianlin, J.A. Alcalde, J.T. Matus, O. Hanotte, C. Moran, J.J. Austin, S. Ulm, A.J. Anderson, G. Larson and A. Cooper. 2008. Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mDNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 105(30):10308-10313.

Green, R.C. 2000. A Range of Disciplines Support a Dual Origin for the Bottle Gourd in the Pacific.  Journal of the Polynesian Society 109:191-197.

2001. Commentary on the Sailing Raft, the Sweet Potato and the South American Connection. Rapa Nui Journal 15:69-77.

Hather, P. and P.V. Kirch 1991. Prehistoric sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) from Mangaia Island, Central Polynesia. Antiquity 65:887.

Heyerdal, T. 1950. The Kon-Tiki expedition; by raft across the South Seas. London: Allen and Unwin.

Irwin G. 1992. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jones, T.L. and K.A. Klar. 2005. Diffusionism reconsidered: Linguistic and archaeological evidence for prehistoric Polynesian contact with southern California. American Antiquity 70:457-484.

Jones, T.L., A.A. Storey, E.A. Matisso-Smith,a nd J.M. Ramirez-Aliaga (eds.) 2011 Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World. Altamira Press, New York.

Lawler, Andrew. 2010 Beyond Kon-Tiki: Did Polynesians Sail to South America. Science 328:1344-1347.

Montenegro, A., C. Avis, A. Weaver, 2008. Modeling the prehistoric arrival of the sweet potato in Polynesia. Journal of Archaeological Science 35:355-367.

Ramirez, J.M. 1991. Transpacific contacts: "The Mapuche connection." Rapa Nui Journal 4:53-55.

Riley, C.L., J.C. Kelly, C.W. Pennington, and R.L. Rands (eds.). 1971. Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Scaglion, R. 2005. Kumara in the Ecuadorian Gulf of Guayaquil? In The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal, edited by C. Ballard, P. Brown, R.M. Bourke, and T. Harwood, pp. 35-41. The University of Sidney, Australia.

Storey, A.A., J.M. Ramirez, D. Quiroz, D.V. Burley, D.J. Addison, R. Walter, A.J. Anderson, T.L. Hunt, J.S. Athens, L. Huynen, and E.A. Matisoo-Smith. 2007. Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 104:10335-10339.

Storey, A.A., D. Quiroz, J.M. Ramirez, N. Beavan-Athfield, D.J. Addison, R. Walter, T. Hunt, J.S. Athens, L. Huynen, and E.A. Matisoo-Smith. 2008. Pre-Columbia chickens, dates, isotopes, and mtDNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105:E99.


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Kathleen Lynch is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, and has also taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Southern Illinois University, and the University of... Read More

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