Monday, June 21, 2010

The Origin of what is now commonly known as the Sweet Potato

For many years, researches and scientists have speculated that ancient Pacific Island voyagers may have reached the shores of South America. Indeed, Arthur Grimble (later Sir Arthur Grimble), in an article in 'National Geographic Magazine' of January 1943, mentions a tradition among the Micronesian people of the Gilbert Islands (now the Republic of Kiribati), that one of their early adventurers reached the shores of the American continent, more than 4,500 miles away.

The stories tell of one Raakau, the greatest of all Gilbertese navigators who reported a land that stretched along the eastern edge of the ocean, to northward without end, and to the southward without end. It was said that this land lies beyond the farthest eastward islands and it was a wall of mountains up against the place where the sun rises, standing over plains full of fertility. There is only one littoral in the Pacific that can be said to fit this description, and that is the western coast of the American continent.

In addition, the late Professor Roland B. Dixon was convinced that the sweet potato reached Polynesia from America by the aid of human hands. He also concluded that the transference of the plant was carried out by Polynesians who had reached the Peruvian coast and had taken the valuable plant back with them to their island home. The Peruvian coast was specified because, in the Kechua dialet of north Peru, the name for the sweet potato is "kumar" and, in the Polynesian name for the plant is "kumara".

In this respect, it is most interesting to see that a paper that recently appeared in the prestigious 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Science' provides the first hard evidence supporting the view that Polynesians did, in fact, sail all the way to the west coast of the American continent, at least a century before the arrival of Columbus.

The key to this breakthrough was chicken bones found in Chile which were radiocarbon dated as approximately 600 years old. DNA testing revealed that the bones carried a rare mutation otherwise only found in chickens from Mele Havea, Tonga, and Fatu-ma-Futi, American Samoa. This evidence clearly indicates a pattern of interaction between Polynesians, long recognized as some of the world's finest sailors and navigators in times preceding Western contact, and South Americans. To put it simply, Polynesians not only made it to America before Columbus, but they apparently introduced the chicken to the continent, as well, with these fowls having a DNA identical to chickens found in Tonga and Tutuila, Samoa.

Another interesting story relating to Polynesian voyagers comes from the study of the chemistry of ancient basalt adzes found in the Tuamotus in the 1930s. Scientists from the University of Queensland, in Australia, have definitely traced one of them to the island of Kahoolawe. The research, published in the Journal 'Science', confirms the view that ancient voyagers came to Hawaii from what is now French Polynesia, and then returned.

Indeed, the early legends from Hawaii recount many voyages to and from Tahiti. In sailing south, the course was maintained by keeping the North Star directly astern. When the North Star sank into the sea, the star Newe was taken as the southern guide and the constellation of Humu was overhead. The last voyager mentioned in Hawaiian traditions was the priest Paao, who arrived from Ra'iatea in about 1275 A.D.

In any event, it is pleasing to see that the modern scientific tools of DNA analysis and chemical testing are confirming so many of the early oral traditions of Pacific Island people. They are also confirming the view that the Polynesians are some of the finest canoe builders, sailors and navigators that the world has ever known.

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