for National Geographic News
The greatest testament we have today to the sailing abilities of the ancient Polynesians may be found in a few ancient chicken bones, a new study reveals.
The bones, which scientists recently dug up from a site on the central coast of Chile, offer a startling conclusion: Polynesians beat Columbus to the Americas by probably a century or more, arriving at the latest in the early 1400s.
(See related: "Video: Columbus' 1492 Journey Continues to Spark Controversy" [October 6, 2006].)
This means Polynesians not only colonized nearly every island in the South Pacific—making journeys over thousands of miles—but they also made the long hop all the way to the Americas.
The study may put an end to a raging debate about how chickens were introduced to the New World, the authors suggest.
The key finding emerged from ancient DNA extracted from one of the chicken bones.
"Being that these are the only pre-Columbian chicken bones that are known, they are very valuable," said lead author Alice Storey of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
With that in mind, the team started with just one bone, which they broke apart to extract the remaining DNA.
They compared this chicken's DNA with the DNA of ancient chickens from archaeological sites across Polynesia and Southeast Asia.
(See a map of the region.)
The results show that the chicken was from Polynesian stock, since it had genetic mutations not seen in chickens brought to the Americas by the Europeans.
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