Great sailors of Heyerdahl

Table of contents:

Great sailors of Heyerdahl
Great sailors of Heyerdahl

New genetic analysis shows that Thor Heyerdahl's hypothesis of pre-Columbian contacts between Indians and Polynesians was correct. The inhabitants of the New World were not isolated by the seas and repeatedly sailed for many thousands of kilometers. Apparently, this is how American plants and a number of other cultural features came to Polynesia. Alas, although Thor Heyerdahl's theory won, they did not fully learn about this even in Nature - where a new genetic study was published. Let's try to understand why this happened.


Crazy hypothesis

By the 1940s, scientists had developed a strong belief in the uniqueness of the Polynesian culture, as well as the culture of the speakers of the Austronesian languages ​​in general. The ancestors of these people from Southeast Asia sailed in different directions: the Eastern Austronesians settled Madagascar, others remained on the territory of modern Indonesia, and others colonized the islands of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii and Easter Island to New Zealand. From west to east, the scope of their colonization exceeded 25 thousand kilometers.

Their culture was indeed unique: being technologically in the Stone Age, the same Polynesians came to catamarans - hydrodynamically much more efficient than single-hull sailing ships of European construction. Already Magellan noted that non-European sailors literally cut circles on them around European ships sailing at full (their) speed.


But in the same 1940s, Thor Heyerdahl, a young Norwegian traveler with incomplete higher education, drew attention to the fact that in this culture there is something reminiscent of South American Indians.

On Easter Island and a small number of other Polynesian islands, there were huge stone statues - moreover, this is completely uncharacteristic for the Polynesians in general. He also drew attention to the cult of the bird-man, which exists on Easter Island and in South America. And equally, the fact that the sweet potato - "kumara" in the Polynesian languages ​​and "kumar" in the languages ​​of the South American Indians - and tetraploid cotton in Polynesia clearly existed before the arrival of the Europeans. Moreover, both of these cultures are from the New World.

It is worth recalling: not only sweet potatoes were borrowed. Tetraploid cotton, bred in pre-Columbian times in the New World and unknown in the Old, pumpkins, from which water vessels were made in South America and Polynesia, semi-wild pineapple, and a number of other crops also came to the Pacific Islands before the arrival of Europeans.


Heyerdahl considered that all these borrowings were the result of contacts. And these contacts happened on the initiative of the Indians, and not at all the Polynesian sailors. He noted that due to the prevailing winds and currents from the islands of Polynesia to South America, it is much more difficult to get there than in the opposite direction.

The Norwegian suggested that long before Columbus, South American Indians had visited the islands many thousands of kilometers from their shores. This means that they were advanced sailors. To demonstrate this, in 1947 he and his associates sailed from South America to Polynesia eight thousand kilometers in a hundred days. This was done on a traditional Indian-style balsa raft previously thought to be only suitable for short coastal voyages.


As you might guess, the ideas of a man with seven semesters of university education did not find wide support from professional scientists. First, the raft, with its huge hydrodynamic drag, is traditionally considered not very suitable for long-distance travel - in contrast to the cutting waves of Polynesian catamarans.

Secondly, it is clear that the Polynesians are a culture that has accumulated a sufficient amount of knowledge for ultra-long sea voyages. For example, they knew the starry sky very well and effectively maneuvered against the headwind. The very idea that the Indians could do something similar seemed extremely unusual in the 1940s. Indeed, if they could swim thousands of kilometers from home, then where are their overseas colonies-settlements?

Genetic revenge

Over the years, attempts to test Heyerdahl's hypothesis have yielded mixed results. Some genetic studies have shown that the Polynesians have impurities of Indian blood - but very recent. Moreover, in terms of the composition of the genes, these impurities are similar to those Indians whom the Europeans brought to the Polynesian islands as forced labor.

Other studies generally showed only European impurities in the Polynesians - and no Native American. In addition, the problem was complicated by the fact that DNA from the bones of long-dead inhabitants of Polynesia can be analyzed very infrequently. Unfortunately, deoxyribonucleic acid decomposes too quickly in humid climates.


But in 2020, an international group of researchers used several methods at once to get around these difficulties. First, they took DNA from 807 people from 17 Polynesian and 15 Native American populations, significantly expanding the search sample. Secondly, they tried not only to abstractly find similar genetic sequences in both, but also to find the longest DNA segments in the genomes of Polynesians and Indians without differences between themselves.

It turned out that in the genes of the Polynesians there really are impurities from the Indians from Peru and Chile, but they were distributed among the Polynesian population extremely unevenly. Some of these genes had many, while others did not. Polynesian traditional communities are designed in such a way that genes circulated in them quite freely. This means that the "Peruvian" and "Chilean" traces in DNA could have appeared only relatively recently - otherwise they would have been distributed much more evenly among the Polynesians.

At the same time, traces of the Indian peoples of the Senu type, from the territory of modern Colombia, or even more northern ones, from Central America, were also found in the genes of the latter. Their genes were much more evenly distributed. Using algorithms, the mixing between them and the Eastern Polynesians has been dated between 1150 and 1380. The Seine, as a single cultural community, existed between 200 BC and 1600 AD - that is, until the Spanish conquest and the epidemics brought by it, which decimated the bulk of this people.


But that was not all. The most unusual thing was that for different regions of Eastern Polynesia the most probable dates for the mixing of Polynesian genes with Senu genes were very different. On the Marquesas Islands this happened around 1150, on the Palizere Islands (French overseas possessions) and Mangareva around 1230, and on Easter Island around 1380.


This means that the scale of the pre-Columbian voyages of South American Indians was wider than previously assumed in the scientific literature - and much closer to Heyerdahl's estimates. It was he who first drew attention to the fact that there are traces of stone monuments not only on Easter Island, but also on other islands of Eastern Polynesia. And he also suggested that this is also the result of cultural borrowing from the indigenous population of South America.

What's especially interesting is that on the Marquesas Islands (and on Easter Island), South Americans are highly likely to have appeared earlier than the Polynesians. This means that the first colonization of a part of Polynesia could have been exactly American, and only then the Polynesians sailed to the same islands.

The conclusion is quite unexpected for two reasons at once.Firstly, no one in the scientific community (Heyerdahl, as we will show below, does not fully relate to her) has never considered the South American Indians as a group capable of long-distance sea colonization. Meanwhile, both Easter Island and the Marquesas Islands are many thousands of kilometers away from South America.

Secondly, it turns out that the data of Polynesian folklore are correct - that by the time the "short-eared" Polynesians arrived on Easter Island, some "long-eared" were already living there. Heyerdahl correlated the latter with the South American Indians.


Despite the surprise of such conclusions for mainstream science, they, at the same time, explain a lot. It is fairly obvious that making huge stone statues or cultivating sweet potatoes are cultural skills that are easily imported only along with their bearers. But to sail for a short time to South America and learn how to cultivate sweet potatoes there or hew huge stone statues and move them for kilometers without wheels and mechanisms is quite difficult.

If the South Americans themselves sailed to the future Polynesian islands and laid the foundations for such cultural traditions as the cultivation of sweet potatoes and the creation of moai (stone statues) there, then it becomes much easier to explain their appearance in Polynesia.

Why scientific correctness isn't all it takes to win a scientific hypothesis

It seems that genetic studies have confirmed Heyerdahl's hypothesis, formulated many decades ago. But if we read that Western scholarly pop writes on this topic, we will be surprised to find that they do not think so there. A popular article in Nature reports:

"Heyerdahl … and his idea that Polynesia was originally inhabited by South Americans was normally criticized by scholars."

In other words, we are told that the Norwegian explorer was only partially right, because he thought that Polynesia was inhabited first by Indians, not Polynesians. Meanwhile, the current work of geneticists shows that the settlement was mixed: only a small part of the East Polynesian islands could have been first populated by South Americans.

The interpretation of a pop article in Nature is not an exception, but a rule. The same idea is repeated by literally all Western popular science publications. Let's open an arbitrary quality one, for example, Ars Technica:

“Thor Heyerdahl saw the Kon-Tiki expedition as evidence that the Polynesians were originally South Americans. Today we know that this is not the case."

We can see the same thing in many other places. The problem with this opinion of the English-speaking scholar is that Heyerdahl never believed that Polynesia was first settled by Indians, or that Polynesians were Indians. Never ever.

Let's open a collection of his articles on the problem - and we will easily be convinced of this. The Norwegian believed that Polynesia was inhabited by two different groups, one of which was clearly Austronesian and the other Indian. And this, in fact, is exactly the picture that now, in 2020, geneticists have confirmed. In theory, Heyerdahl's hypothesis won.

But actually no. Any hypothesis - even if it matches the facts better than all others - can win only in one case: if the scientific world is fully aware that it exists.


But who read Heyerdahl these days? Authors of popular articles in Nature? Of course not. The Norwegian has never been in good standing in the scientific community. There is no scientific school based on his theories. To put it simply, in Nature and other places his hypothesis is analyzed as in his time Pasternak in the USSR: from the words "comrades whom we have no reason not to trust."

The Norwegian was not accepted "in the get-together." Those who described his theories from the academic department to students - who then grew up and began to write popular articles in Nature - themselves did not really like Heyerdahl, which is why they did not really delve into his articles.

The "Heyerdahl problem" did not appear in the English-speaking scientific world yesterday.Already in the Soviet afterword to the collection of his scientific articles, translated into Russian, it is precisely noted:

“It is appropriate to emphasize here that this [Heyerdahl's] hypothesis is often referred to - some in the heat of a dispute, and some by misunderstanding - as“American,”that is, those according to which the Aborigines of the American continent were the ancestors of the Polynesians. In fact (and it is not so difficult to be convinced of this after reading the collection) one of the important advantages and advantages of Heyerdahl's hypothesis is precisely that its author managed to overcome the one-sidedness and limitations of both the “Asian” and “American” hypotheses of the settlement of Polynesia. In fact, Heyerdahl for the first time in the history of the problem equally takes into account and explains both the Asian and American components in the anthropological type, language and culture of the Polynesians."

These words were written in Russian in 1969, more than half a century ago - but absolutely nothing has changed since then. The hypothesis of the Norwegian is objectively correct, but subjectively in the English-speaking world there has not yet been a single popularizer who would know about this.

None of those who popularly wrote a new work in Nature simply does not know the real essence of the Heyerdahl hypothesis. And this is despite the fact that the scientific article itself with the analysis of genomes quite accurately states: "… Thor Heyerdahl suggested that Native Americans and Polynesians could come into contact." From this it is obvious: the authors of the scientific article understand that the Norwegian never thought that "the Polynesians were in the beginning South Americans." Or that the Indians were the first inhabitants of Polynesia.


Why do the authors of popular articles do not know this significant fact and present the Norwegian's hypothesis in a distorted manner? We could limit ourselves to the words: "People work in Nature, and people tend to make mistakes" (and the author of these lines too). But that will only be part of the answer. After all, on some topics people rarely make mistakes, and on some - often. Moreover, Heyerdahl's hypothesis belongs to the second type. Why was she so unlucky with the correct perception in the press?

We live in a world where people are less and less willing to concentrate on long texts. Heyerdahl formulated his hypothesis in the middle of the last century, when reading one hundred thousand characters (the approximate length of a number of his articles) was not a problem for most educated people. Then scientific works were often published in the form of books-monographs - and today this happens less and less, because more and more often there is simply no one to read these monographs. Many scientific journals even recommend the authors of articles not to exceed the volume of four pages - so that the coverage of the audience from the scientists themselves is wider.

In such conditions, people are often forced to touch upon works that they themselves, in the original source, have never read. Where should they get their data from? From the same place where the typical, for example, a hunter of the Paleolithic period had to take data about what he had never seen - that is, from “knowledgeable people”.

Thousands of years ago he was a shaman - and today he is a university professor. But the problem is that this professor did not appear on Earth in a flying saucer, but grew up in the same society as all of us. Therefore, he just as well knows only what is inside his rather narrow "capsule of interests." Heyerdahl has never been so generally accepted as to fit into the capsule of interests of an appreciable number of university professors.

Therefore, in principle, there are no chances for an adequate recognition of the victory of his theory. Which, of course, does not detract from the fact that she won. It's just that no one will know about this victory: there is no scientific pop in English that would tell about it.

Popular by topic