Sweet potatoes and prehistoric Polynesian expeditions to South America

How a spud in the dark led to a forgotten history of a far flung people

The year is 1778, and your feet touch land for the first time in weeks. A tropical paradise lays before you. The last land you had felt beneath your boots was the Isle of Tahiti, over 2500 miles back the way you had came. The islanders welcome you as a god, and bring forth a cornucopia of foods including one you recognize. Is that a sweet potato??

If you were to take the place of James Cook, who was the first European to discover the Hawaiian islands, you might ask yourself the same question. How could a plant known only to your people since the new worlds discovery have possibly reached these distant and isolated lands? Cook and his crew would later take samples of these starchy artifacts back with them to museums in Britain where they would sit undisturbed for nearly 200 years.

20th century genetic studies would later find that not only did the sweet potato somehow make the over 3000 mile journey from the new world to the Hawaiian islands, they did it twice. Two genetically distinct cultivars have been found spread throughout the Polynesian archipelagos, one thought to have originated in Mesoamerica and one thought to have originated much farther away in present day Columbia, and that these journeys probably happened around the year 1200 AD, almost 3 centuries before Columbus would discover the New World.

This amazing finding totally shattered the image of the pacific and it’s level of isolation from the outside world. The best part? Those double hulled sailing canoes didn’t just bring potatoes, they brought people.

Mind blowing as it sounds, genetic studies sampling 807 individuals from 17 Polynesian islands and 15 native American groups from Mexico to Chile “found identical-by-descent segments of Native American ancestry across several Polynesian islands” not only this, but the study also found “conclusive evidence that there was a single shared contact event. “ and based on their studies, they believe the Polynesian-Native American *ahem* genetic interaction event occurred in Columbia. The Polynesians would take their Native American children and wives back to the homeland along with the promising new staple crop, both of which are thought to have fed into the unique culture of the western pacific islands.

It’s truly amazing how far humans have gone to swap spit and spuds, and the butterfly effects of these interactions are untold.

Stay tuned for more to come,

-Connor, Of All Trades

Further Reading:

https://arstechnica.com/science/2013/01/polynesians-reached-south-america-picked-up-sweet-potatoes-went-home/

http://www.sci-news.com/genetics/ancient-polynesians-native-americans-contact-long-before-europeans-08634.html

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2487-2

https://www.livescience.com/polynesians-native-americans-dna.html

https://hollis.harvard.edu/primo-explore/fulldisplay/dedupmrg277447013/HVD2