Here I share the history and ancient lore of the Pacific peoples and recent archaeological research. Placing the latest scientific studies alongside the histories of the ancestors is an exciting experience. Here I attempt to answer some of the questions that others pursue.

When the elders asked me to bring the ancient lore of the Maori/Polynesian people into the world, I had no idea that might mean. It brought an astounding library of over 3,000 chants into play in a powerful way. Some lasted for hours and some for days. They encapsulated an ethos for a life lived in a good way, philosophies and principles based on a remarkable understanding of people and the world we live in.

Few understand that the Pacific World knew peace for over 2,500 years. The old histories that cover those years speak of the days without conflict, say to take the life of another is to destroy your own. Archaeological excavations find no weapons of war in the sites of those times. Warfare in the Pacific is a tragic development born of natural devastating events that tore apart their world soon after 1200 AD.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Did Polynesian voyagers reach South America?

For decades historians have wondered if the great Polynesian navigators reached South America. Many thought it was likely because kumara, the sweet potato, which was native to Peru, was growing in the Pacific islands long before Europeans sailed into those waters.

A huge breakthrough came in 2007, when chicken bones were found in an archaeological dig in South America. The news made headlines around he world.

When Dr Lisa Matisso-Smith, of the University of Auckland, an expert in unravelling migration patterns in the Pacific, examined the chicken bones excavated from an archaeological site in Chile, dated 1300 BP, [Before Present] her findings were startling.

Lisa matched them to an identical DNA sequence found in bones near Ha’afeva village in the Ha’apai chain of Tonga, and Fatumafutu, at the entrance to Pago Pago Harbour in American Samoa — 10,000 km from Chile.

That remarkable story, with its wonderful mix of mystery and science, reveals the potential of DNA analysis. It opens fascinating windows into the past.

Lisa focuses on domestic chickens, pigs and dogs, and stowaway rats, to map the movement of people across the vast waters of the Pacific. For a variety of reasons it’s easier to track animal DNA than that of people.

Michael Field, in an article in the Christchurch Press, shares the chicken news and provides a wider context for the story…

Bones tell the story

‘About 600 years ago, a family on the Chilean coast sat down to a chicken dinner. The bird had laid blue eggs and had no tail but that wasn’t what was odd; Mapuche Indians were not supposed to have that chicken at all.

‘Now, ground breaking New Zealand research has shown that rather than Columbus and the Spanish having taken the first chickens to South America, the Polynesians made a 10,000 kilometre, pre-European delivery.

“Who discovered America?” asks biological anthropologist Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith of Auckland University, where, along with Lower Hutt’s GNS Science’s Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, the research was done. “There were people in America when he arrived and there were people visiting them long before Columbus arrived.”

‘Horticulturalists lived on Chile’s Arauco Peninsula about 1,000 years ago, leaving ceramic litter behind them, which archaeologists have recently unearthed, along with 50 chicken bones, probably from about five birds…

‘Rafter said the bones were 622 years old, plus or minus 35 years — about 1385, when the Black Death was sweeping Europe. Columbus first arrived in America in 1492.

No wonder this was world news! It was presented to the scientific world in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious United States institution.

Michael field’s article continues…

‘But the paper doesn’t really answer a deeper mystery; who were the Polynesians who swept so fast out of Asia 3,000 years ago, populating a vast swathe of the Pacific, including New Zealand, and reaching South America 800 years ago?

“It was highly unlikely that when they got to the edge of eastern Polynesia triangle that they encountered any signs saying— NO MORE ISLANDS PAST THIS POINT — I think they have just continued voyaging. I always basically believed Polynesians reached South America; it was finding evidence that was the hard bit,” said Matisoo-Smith.

‘Polynesians, and their predecessors, the Lapita people, whose pottery can be found in Melanesia, arrived with chickens from Asia. Chicken bones were first found in Pacific archaeological sites 3000 years ago in the Solomon Islands. It was another 1500 to 2000 years before people and chickens reached central and east Polynesia.

‘What has been a mystery is the presence of kumara in Polynesia. It first showed up in Mangaia in the Cook Islands about 1000 AD.

‘In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl built a balsawood raft, which he named Kon-Tiki, to demonstrate that the south Americans drifted to Polynesia with kumara… but critical scientists could not accept until now, that Polynesians went to South America and came back with it.’

‘Computer simulations show that although sailing into the winds from the islands to south America was a significant technological and navigational challenge, it was possible. Regular winds from Rapa Nui or Easter Island would actually take a sailor to the Arauco Peninsula.’

The chicken bones establish stunning scientific proof of a Polynesian—South America voyaging connection.

                                                           Painting by Herb Kane

When we turn to the traditional teachings of Waitaha, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, they speak of the waka [canoe] Arai Te Uru, under the command of Tamatea Mai Tawhiti, sailing to South America and then returning to Easter Island with kumara. Then sixty-eight generations ago, when Ra Kai Hau sailed to Aotearoa, the chants document the kumara’s journey from Easter Island to Aotearoa. It was referred to as the ‘peace child’ and was strapped beneath the breast of the women on the colonising canoe. It was bound to them with fibre cloth for protection because it was considered vulnerable and so vital to their future it had to be nurtured day and night. And it remained with that woman until it was time to allow shoots to grow and be cut off to begin a garden where they made landfall. 

Did the navigators also reach North America? Michael Field writes…

‘Polynesians probably went to California as well. When they got to America, they left behind fragments of language, art and fish bones, as well as chickens, dogs and rats…’

But that’s another story that hold its own space in its own file. See you there!


  1. Barry, thank you. Your writings and blogs are, as ever, touching me deeply. I cannot find the words, but will hold my courage to say the ones that stay ever at the forefront of my mind.... It Is Time. Along with non-understood tears of relief and joy.

    1. Kai ora Annie, yes it is time to take our courage in our hands and walk our truth. Journey well, Arohanui.