The origin of the Polynesian people has been one of the most disputed scientific mysteries regarding ancient maritime migrations. The roots of the people of Polynesia had always thought to have been South Asia, namely the island nations like Indonesia. This was the common dogma until Thor Heyerdahl, a ethnologist at the University of Oslo, Norway, set sail across the Pacific ocean on a balsa wood raft to declare the true ancestors of the Polynesians to be the South Americans. Dr. Heyerdahl initially began to doubt the dogma of Polynesian origin when he was on his honeymoon in the Polynesian Islands.
He heard a chieftain tell the creation story of the local Polynesian natives. The tale told of tall, fair-skinned, towheaded men that descended from the sky and created the Polynesians. Although this story is sounds uniquely strange and mythical, it reminded Dr. Heyerdahl of another legend from another culture. Across the ocean, in the Peru-Bolivia Lake Titicaca region, the Pre-Incan civilizations had many legends of their founders as tall, light-skinned, blond-haired men. Comparing these creation stories, Dr.
Heyerdahl formulated his theory that the Pre-Incan natives of South America, specifically the Lake Titicaca region, had traveled across the Pacific Ocean and settled Polynesia. Determined to prove his controversial theory, Dr. Heyerdahl set off on a mission that was to become one of the biggest media sensations of the time. To prove that it was possible for the Pre-Incan Peruvians to have traversed the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, Dr. Heyerdahl and five other crew members built the Kon-Tiki, a balsa-wood raft made out of the materials that would have been available for the Pre-Incan people , and built with their methods.
Kon-Tiki was the name of an ancient Peruvian sun god, who was said to have disappeared across the Western sea. Similarly, in ancient Polynesian legends, there was a god name Tiki who arrived down from the Eastern sky. On the fateful day of April 18, 1947, the nine-log balsa wood Kon Tiki set sail with its mission to prove the true Polynesian ancestors to be the Pre Incan Peruvians. This mission may seem like a theatrical, high-seas adventure, but it has solid factual evidence that supports it. First, in the realm of genetics, there is evidence that contact had been made between the Polynesians and ancient South Americans.
In the genetic makeup of 19 sample Easter Islanders, 8% of the genome was comprised of Native American genes, and the way that the genes were broken up and scattered through the genome proved that these genes predated any European genes, ruling out the possibility of the genes being the result of European contamination. This piece of genetic evidence greatly supports Dr. Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesia was colonized by Pre-Incan South Americans. Second, in the realm of art, Dr. Heyerdahl recognized a definitive link between the style of the Pre-Incan lake Titicaca residents and the inhabitants of Polynesia.
On Easter Island, one of Polynesia’s biggest and most archaeologically rich islands, a group of large, elongated stone heads called moai stand like massive, carved guardians over the island. These stone carvings, and other carvings excavated on other Polynesian islands were found to be extraordinarily similar in their form to stone carvings found in the Lake Titicaca region from the Pre-Incan time period. Finally,in the realm of agriculture,one of most important Polynesian staple food crops is sweet potato. Sweet potato originally came from the Andes Mountains region.
The presence of sweet potato on the islands of Polynesia suggests that there was contact between Polynesia and the South American Natives of the Andes Mountains. While Dr. Heyerdahl’s theory that Ancient Pre-Incan Natives from Lake Titicaca had sailed across the Pacific Ocean was cast off as unorthodox and unscientific, several theories that seem to be the reverse of Dr. Heyerdahl’s have been considered. With all of the evidence supporting contact between the South Americans and the Polynesians, it is popularly theorized that the ancient Polynesians sailed over the Pacific Ocean and ‘discovered’ the New World long before Columbus.
With favorable ocean currents that would have guided the ancient Polynesians to South America, this alternative angle is a very valid one. Although all of the evidence supporting the Kon-Tiki theory lends to a strong argument, there are many pieces of evidence disproving this theory that the roots of the Polynesians to be of South America. Sailing a Pre-Inca style balsawood raft from Peru to Polynesia was a valiant experiment undoubtedly, and surely proved that the ancient South Americans could have made the same journey, but it did not prove that they actually did.
The original theory of Polynesian origin was South Asia; The roots of the Polynesian language and Polynesian genes can both be traced back to South Asia. In the realm of linguistics, a major opposing argument of the Kon Tiki theory is the roots of the Polynesian language. Polynesian language has been analyzed by many experts is the field, and is thought to have originated from the Austronesian family, a language family originating in Taiwan, instead of originating from a South American language.
Furthermore, in the realm of genetics, there is concrete evidence that Polynesians are the direct descendants of Southern Asians, from the coastal mainland and island regions like Indonesia. Mitochondrial DNA, following the female line of a population, is particularly accurate when trying to discern the genetic origin of a population. In 2011, Professor Martin Richards of the Leeds researchers, did a study on 157 samples of mitochondrial DNA from native Polynesians and these genes closely resembled the genes of the Taiwanese people who populated Papua New Guinea.
In the long-standing debate about Polynesian origin, all of the arguments are strong and legitimate, and supported by both cultural and genetic evidence. However, majority of the evidence points to the ancient South Americans being the ancient forefathers of the Polynesians. The cultural likenesses linking the creation myths of the ancient South Americans and the Polynesians and the similarities between their art forms are decisive in their support of the Kon Tiki theory.
This is because the very essence of a society is expressed in their mythology and art, and there is a much greater degree of this evidence in common with the ancient South Americans and the Polynesians than the ancient South Asians and the Polynesians. Linguistics that trace back to Taiwanese roots could have been the product of a later migration to Polynesia after the South Americans had left or died out. On Easter Island, the massive moai so mysteriously placed are even more mysterious in their resemblance to Pre-Incan stone heads found along the shore of Lake Titicaca.
The creation stories of the Polynesian culture, of a great white chieftain named Tiki who led the ancient Polynesians out of darkness, is nearly identical to the legends of the Pre-Incan natives living in the Lake Titicaca area of a great sun god, once again a saviour of his people, named Kon-Tiki. While the refuting arguments are strong, I believe that the theory of Dr. Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki is sailing towards the horizon, finding the true origins of the Polynesian people.