Voyage to the Americas

Ancient Human travellers were not satisfied when they ventured as far into the Pacific Ocean that they discovered Easter Island. From Easter Island there is no land between it and South America. As Niobe Thompson said in his television series the Human Odyssey, “the island is so remote its settlement was almost a boast, an extravagant statement of ocean mastery.” Easter Island is about the most isolated speck of land on the planet, yet these ancient mariners found it and settled it. How amazing is that?

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues called moai. It is now a World Heritage Site. Polynesian people settled it between 700 and 1100 CE and created a thriving society. However humans brought with them passengers—rats. Together with their ever-growing population and destruction of forests for the creation of the statues led to gradual deforestation and extinction of much of their natural resources.  In time this severely weakened their society. At one time 15,000 people lived there, but when Europeans found them there their numbers had declined to 2 or 3 thousand people. After contact, European diseases and Peruvian slave trading further reduced their numbers. In 1877 their numbers had been reduced to 111 residents.

The nearest land is Pitcairn Island some 2,075 km. away. South America (Chile) is 3,512 km. away. Jared Diamond mentioned how when he arrived by jet it took 5 hours to cross the Pacific to get there and he saw no land at all in the wide ocean beneath the aircraft.

After settling the most remote island in the world, these ancient explorers transformed the landscape into an astonishing one, filled with the most surprising images of their ancestors. They built  enormously impressive statues each of which depicted the person that was buried beneath it. These tombstones became expressions of the power, prestige, and individuality of the deceased and his family. They became even taller in death than they were in life.

Of course, as is by now well known, these huge statues consumed huge resources on an island with severely limited resources.  Once the people consumed the resources they needed to survive on these remote islands things started to get nasty. As statues covered the landscape of the island the trees began to disappear, until they were all gone. What was the person who cut down the last tree thinking? People thought their religion demanded they build these statues for their leaders. This was certainly a case of an unfortunate interpretation of religious obligations leading people astray. Not for the first time or the last time.

After trees disappeared the capacity of the inhabitants of Easter Island lost their  capacity to embark on great voyages also disappeared with them.    After making these remarkable voyages, “on Easter Island, ocean voyaging died away.” At least this is what scientists believed until recently.

Recently an archaeologist in Chile, Jose Miguel Ramirez Aliaga from the University of Valparaiso, was not convinced by the traditional story. He did not believe ocean voyaging ended in Easter Island. He believed that they went 4,000 km farther east to Chile.  In Chile, Aliaga found something that only a Polynesian could have left behind—a chicken.  Based on convincing DNA evidence he proved that chickens came to South America long before Columbus did. When Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere, chickens preceded him. Aliaga is convinced they came from the west. In other words from Asia!

In addition Aliaga found sweet potatoes of South American origin farther west in the South Pacific that are 1,000 years old.  These potatoes came to the South Pacific from South America long before European explorers like Cook came to the South Pacific.  As Aliaga has asked, if this not enough evidence to convince us that Polynesian explorers came all the way to South America what evidence would convince us? Yet there is more evidence.

Recently scientists have analyzed skulls from Easter Island and have found genetic members of native South Americans in their DNA. According to Thompson, “This is proof beyond doubt. Far earlier than Columbus there was an ocean voyaging culture that stretched all the way to the Americas.”

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