A fowl surprise

Why did the chicken cross the ocean?  It sounds like a bad joke but some Chilean chicken remains are causing a rethink of Pacific exploration.

The Polynesian people of the Pacific were one of the great colonizing cultures of the world. Starting around 2000 years ago, they moved out from the islands of Fiji, Tonga and Somoa.  By AD 1300, they had reached Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. What happened then is unclear.  Did they just stop exploring or continue east and reach the Americas?  Its one of the big unknown questions of Polynesian history.  Up till now there have been several intriguing hints that these great seafaring people made it to the New World.  One of the best clues is the sweet potato. A native of the Andes, this fleshy tuba has been used in the Pacific for over 1000 years.  It seems possible the Polynesians visited the west coast of the Americas and bought the sweet potato back with them.  But not everyone holds with this scenario.  Alternative ideas are that migrating birds carried the seeds in their stomachs or that some potatoes floated out across the sea (never to be seen again). The bottom line is there is no hard evidence that Polynesians reached the far eastern Pacific.

Pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile

This could all change with some fantastic new results coming out of the west coast of South America, reported by a group led by Alice Storey of the University of Auckland.  Excavations at El Arenal, a site three kilometres inland of the south central Chile coast, have revealed 50 chicken bones that represent around three individuals.  Chickens have been an important part of the local economies since at least 1522 when Pizarro visited Peru and noticed they were already well established.  It seems unlikely Europeans introduced them.  Although chickens were first domesticated in Asia, they haven’t been found in American archaeological sites, suggesting whoever bought them didnt bring them overland.   This new work focussed on the mitochondrial DNA of the chicken remains and showed the sequences were identical to those found at Polynesian sites on Tonga and Samoa.  Excitingly, the Chile remains date to somewhere between AD 1304 and 1424, clearly predating when Europeans reached the Americas. 

It looks like the Pacific was even busier than we thought.

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