Research on sweet potatoes suggests the Polynesians reached the New World centuries before Columbus.

A Polynesian outrigger canoe -- by John Webber, Hawaii, 1779

A Polynesian double-hulled canoe — by John Webber, of Captain Cook’s crew, Hawaii, 1779

Sweet potatoes come from South America, but they’re common on Polynesian islands like Hawaii, Samoa, and Tahiti. According to recent studies of the crop’s DNA, the Polynesians had sweet potatoes before the European Age of Discovery, probably centuries before. So European ships can’t have brought the first seeds to the Polynesians. The Amerindians weren’t major mariners, so it’s likely the Polynesians crossed the Pacific by canoe, landed in South America, and brought sweet potatoes back home.

And that’s not the only evidence. The Polynesian names for sweet potato — kuumala and others like it — resemble the Quechua names from northwest South America: kumara and cumal. Plus, genetic testing among natives of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) suggests the Polynesians there interbred with Amerindians, a century or two before Columbus.

Researchers think Polynesians first visited South America between 500 and 1000 C.E., and returned several times. And unlike Columbus (or the Vikings in Canada), they navigated the vast ocean with Stone Age technology. (Check out my earlier post: Stone Age GPS and the Discovery of Hawaii.)



© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


  1. John keagy

    The posts have been awesome lately! Thank you.

  2. Mapi

    There are theories and some evidence of people from Inca Empire (nowadays Peru) reaching Polynesia first


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