Kon-Tiki lives !

Could anything be more fascinating to a prepubertal male than setting off to explore the Pacific in a raft?  It’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn writ large.  Then there was the protagonist, Thor Heyerdahl a red bearded Norseman from central casting.  I read the book (Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft) when mother got it as a Book of The Month selection in the 50s.

Ostensibly this was to explore the possibility that the Polynesians far across the pacific had come from the people living on the west coast of South America.  Actually it was to have a great adventure.  The raft made it across the Pacific, after a voyage of 7,000 kiloMeters (4,350 miles) and 101 days.   Just to show how incredible the journey was,  Easter Island is said to be ‘relatively close’ to S. America (3,723 miles) — which is like saying LA is relatively close to NYC in North America.

Despite their success the cognoscenti deprecated the trip.  Even though a South American plant (the sweet potato) has been found on Easter Island, it was held that the Polynesians went to South America and brought it back.

Well Heyerdahl was right but it took nearly 70 years to prove it.  A study in Nature (vol. 583 pp. 524 – 525, 572 – 577 ’20) looked at the DNA of people from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and 17 populations from various Pacific Islands, and 15 populations from the Pacific coast of South America.  Some 807 individuals were tested.   The analysis was tricky as there is European admixture in both places and getting rid of this wasn’t easy.  The Polynesians definitely showed traces of South American genetic material.


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  • Ashutosh  On July 25, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    From what I understand, there is overwhelming evidence of Polynesian migrations from the East and Indonesia (see Christina Thompson’s book for instance), so hopefully this evidence will hold up.

  • luysii  On July 25, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    No question. Not only that, but the Polynesians have traces of Denisovan DNA in them. I don’t think Heyerdahl was saying the Polynesians were all from South America, only that South Americans could have gotten there, but it’s been a long time since I read the book

  • Peter Shenkin  On July 25, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    I think Ashutosh is suggesting that, since the Polynesians are believed to have populated Micronesia, Melonesia and Easter Island from an early origin in or near Taiwan, it makes more sense to believe that they might have continued their Eastward journey, eventually reaching South America. This seems more likely than the reverse East-to-West migration from South America to Easter Island.

    In fact, a 2011 map showing the “Chronological dispersal of Autronesian people” proposes a possible extension to South America.

    (And, of course, from their purported Taiwanese origin, the Polynesians also dispersed Westward, as far as Madagascar.)

    I also read the book as a kid, but in those (pre-DNA-sequencing) days, I was puzzled about what, if anything, Heyerdahl concluded he had proven. It was indeed a swashbuckling adventure, but the DNA evidence would seem to be silent on direction.

    Finally, I think there is more than one way that a potato seed or seedling could have made the journey in a manner other than transport by a human being. But perhaps it is of interest that the Maori of NZ claim that their local potato was grown before Captain Cook arrived in 1769. We white males tend to believe that Cook introduced them.

  • luysii  On July 25, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    Peter — that should be easy to settle — is their any Denisovan genetic material in the indigenous peoples of western South America? If there is I haven’t heard about it. There is Denisovan genetic material in Polynesians however.

    • Peter Shenkin  On July 26, 2020 at 9:38 am

      Luysii – Yes. But do all Polynesians (particularly the Eastern Polynesians under study) have Denisovan DNA? and do other Amerindians have either Polynesian or Densiovan DNA? One thing that I had not realized was how recent the Polynesian migrations were (ca. 1000 years ago) compared to the more ancient settlement of the Americas (ca. 20,000 years ago). I also don’t know how strong the evidence is for an old seafaring culture in present-day Columbia. Fascinating in any case.

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