“Future studies may validate more of Thor Heyerdahl’s hypotheses on the Pacific”
Down To Earth speaks with Reidar Solsvik, curator of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway, about a recent study in “Nature” on Native Americans in the Pacific
The newspaper Nature recently published a study that analyzed genetic material to conclude that Native Americans and Polynesians had made contact before Europeans arrived in the Pacific. In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl had traveled from Peru in South America to the Tuamotu Islands in the Pacific on a balsa wood raft called Kon-Tiki to prove that the ancient South Americans had settled in Polynesia. Down to earth was talking to Reidar Solsvik, curator of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway, and asked if the study validated Heyerdahl’s theory. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: Do the results of this latest study sufficiently validate Thor Heyerdahl’s hypothesis on the basis of which he undertook the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947?
Reidar Solsvik: The current DNA study proves that there was indeed personal contact between Polynesian and South American peoples long before Europeans came to these shores. Thor Heyerdahl had four claims that relate to this study:
1) That the ancient cultures of South America colonized the islands of eastern Polynesia before the advent of Polynesian navigators; 2) That there had been personal contacts between the peoples of these two regions as proof by particular botanical evidence; 3) That the old balsa rafts were seaworthy ships and that they could sail to Polynesia; and 4) that ocean currents provided ancient cultures with a connecting path that prehistorians should explore.
Archeology has long shown that Polynesian navigators from Asia were the first to settle on many, if not all, of the regions. Therefore, in this case, Thor Heyerdahl was not right. However, the present study opens the possibility that the meeting between Polynesians and peoples of South America took place in the Marquesas Islands of the South.
Thus, the present study somewhat supports Thor Heyerdahl’s belief that South Americans ventured into the Pacific, but it does not rule out the other probable theory that the Polynesians could have sailed to South America. and come back.
The current study largely supports Heyerdahl’s later claim that ancient cultures traveled more frequently and for longer than the scientific community has generally accepted. In the 1970s, archaeologists in South America doubted that balsa wood rafts were widely used to facilitate trade between South America and Meso America. This has now become accepted knowledge.
This study proves the idea that Polynesians or South Americans had contact, even earlier than previously believed. This proves, or at least strongly supports Thor Heyerdahl’s later theory.
RG: Heyerdahl’s views were not widely accepted by the scientific community during his lifetime. And now, a study by scientists has proven that Heyerdahl is at least partly right. Don’t you think there is a great irony here?
RS: This is ironic and would be welcomed by Heyerdahl, who has been criticized and himself frequently criticized for dogmatic positions. The most gracious part of the new discoveries is that the contact between Polynesians and South Americans seems to have its earliest occurrence in the Southern Marquesas Islands, of which Fatu-Hiva is the most famous.
Thor Heyerdahl lived here when he first hypothesized that there must be contact between these two areas. The most ironic part is that the study leading Thor Heyerdahl to Fatu-Hiva, The flora of south-eastern Polynesia, by F Brown, made it clear that researchers should seek the key to the “Polynesian mystery” (this is their cultural origin) in the eastern part of Fatuhiva (the landmass closest to South America).
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Thor Heyerdahl had some acceptance among the scientific community and was intimately involved in the development of research strategies for the anthropological exploration of Eastern Polynesia and the Marquesas in the 10e International Congress of Pacific Sciences in Honolulu. After the mid-1960s, it again fell out of favor with the Pacific scientific community.
RG: Would it be correct to say in light of the new study that while most of Polynesia was populated from west to east, native American colonization of the area is also a fact?
RS: No. The study does not establish this as a fact and does not claim that it is a fact. He only claims that it could be possible or probable, as they found the first occurrence of the combined DNA on Fatu-Hiva. The prehistoric chronology of the region establishes the Polynesian presence on Nukuhiva and possibly Hiva Oa around 1000 CE.
The fact that you have combined DNA at least since 1150 CE on Fatu-Hiva (of which I am not aware of early colonization), opens up the possibility of an American presence. Yet the most likely interpretation is that Polynesian navigators sailed to South America and back.
However, we can no longer exclude the possibility of an exit of South Americans in the Pacific. Here, the South American travel legends and the Polynesian legends of Fatu-Hiva have special significance and this shows that indigenous knowledge should not be overlooked.
RG: Will future studies further validate Heyerdahl’s hypothesis concerning the role of Amerindians in Polynesia?
RS: It could. What I am sure of is that there will be renewed interest in: 1) finding and excavating the first settlements, this time on Fatu-Hiva; 2) Researchers will begin to look for archaeological evidence of this contact, especially along the coast of South America, but also in Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
In the long term, there are several aspects that have been frequently discussed since the 1970s that more DNA and more archaeological and linguistic research could answer. The presence of large stone temples with anthropomorphic statues on the islands of eastern Polynesia facing South America like the Marquesas, Mangareva and Easter Island could be linked to influences from South America (i.e. by the Polynesians seeing them, or by the South Americans going out into the Pacific).
This was first discussed in the 1920s and 1930s and this question was raised again in the 1980s and 1990s by Swedish archaeologists Paul Wallin and Helene Martinsson-Wallin (Paul Wallin is one of the commentators on the ‘article in Nature) and others.
So far, no conclusive information has been obtained, although most researchers believe it to be an indigenous Polynesian invention. However, the chronology of the origins of these structures just after 1200-1300 CE is very intriguing in light of this new study.
Finally, we now know that the sweet potato is a South American crop that was brought to Polynesia in pre-European times. There is a possibility, also mentioned in connection with the article by Nature, that the word for sweet potato in Polynesia could be borrowed from the languages of Colombia, Ecuador or Peru / Bolivia.
Currently, no systematic study has been carried out, but the article by Nature will change this situation. Whether we are able to determine whether it is a loan or not is uncertain, but I predict that systematic studies will be done.
We are a voice for you; you have been a great support to us. Together, we are building independent, credible and courageous journalism. You can help us more by making a donation. It will mean a lot to our ability to bring you news, insights and analysis from the field so that we can make changes together.