Chilean archaeologists working at the site of El Arenal-1, on the Arauco Peninsula in south-central Chile, discovered what they thought might be the first prehistoric chicken bones unearthed in the Americas. They asked Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and colleagues to investigate.
The group carbon-dated the bones and their DNA was analysed. The 50 chicken bones from at least five individual birds date from between 1321 and 1407 - 100 years or more before the arrival of Europeans.
However, this date range does coincide with dates for the colonization of the easternmost islands of Polynesia, including Pitcairn and Easter Island.
And when the El Arenal chicken DNA was compared with chicken DNA from archaeological sites in Polynesia, the researchers found an identical match with prehistoric samples from Tonga and American Samoa, and a near identical match from Easter Island.
Easter Island is in eastern Polynesia, and so is a more likely launch spot for a voyage to South America, the researchers say. The journey would have taken less than two weeks, falling within the known range of Polynesian voyages around this time, says Matisoo-Smith.
Other researchers have found indirect evidence that Polynesians might have made it to the Americas before Europeans. "But this is the first concrete evidence - not something based on a similarity in the styles of artefacts or a linguistic similarity," says Matisoo-Smith.
It is also the first clear evidence that the chicken was introduced before the Europeans arrived.
Genetic studies of modern South Americans have not uncovered any signs of Polynesian ancestry. But this is not surprising, says Matisoo-Smith. Ancient Polynesians were great explorers, but tended to settle only in uninhabited islands.
[Taiwan] [South America]