About 3,000 years ago, people on the eastern edge of Asia began sailing east, crossing the ocean to reach uninhabited islands. Their descendants, 2,000 years later, invented the double-hulled canoe to reach places like Hawaii and Rapa Nui.
Archaeologists and anthropologists have long debated just how far the Polynesians’ canoes took them. A new study suggest that they made it all the way to the Americas.
Today, people on Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, and four other Polynesian islands carry small amounts of DNA inherited from people who lived in Colombia about 800 years ago. One explanation: Polynesians traveled to South America, and then took South Americans onto their boats to voyage back to sea.
After Asians crossed the Bering Land Bridge 16,000 years ago, they spread across the Americas, reaching the southern tip of South America by 14,000 years ago.
Andrés Moreno Estrada, a geneticist, and his wife, Karla Sandoval, an anthropologist, compared the DNA of 809 people from Rapa Nui and other Polynesian islands, as well as in countries along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Chile.
They found that most of the people on Rapa Nui had some recent Chilean forebears. From them, they inherited both Native American and European DNA. But six people had no European ancestry. Their Native American ancestry had a different source: the Zenu population of Colombia. The scientists then found some of the same pieces of DNA in people on four other islands in eastern Polynesia.
The researchers estimated how long ago these Native American ancestors lived by measuring the size of the DNA fragments. Stretches of shared DNA get smaller with each generation. The researchers found that all of the Zenu-like stretches of DNA in the Polynesians were roughly the same size, from Zenu relatives who lived about eight centuries ago.