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Who Discovered the Americas First?

2024-02-29 00:00:00 / episode: 377


Who Discovered the Americas First?
This is an old question, and everyone thinks they know the answer, but today I want to give you a different answer.
Along the way, we’ll take a look at the mystery of the Polynesians, a sideways view of sweetpotatoes, and one of my childhood heroes, Thor Heyerdahl, along with some DNA studies.

The Polynesian Mystery

Before we get into the sweet potatoes, let me tell you a short story. A few years ago, I flew to Guam. As I looked out the window on the vast open sea below me, I wondered, how did the first people get to the remote Pacific islands?
Polynesians are remarkably similar in their genetics, language and culture despite being separated by thousands of kilometres of open ocean. Also, they didn’t have compasses or sextants to navigate with.
The polynesians didn’t have a written language. So, how could we find the answer to these mysteries? The answer to the Polynesian mystery of navigation starts with the guy I’m gonna tell you about next.

Thor Heyerdahl

My mind wandered and then I remembered as a kid hearing about a guy called Thor Heyerdahl. He was an explorer who thought the Polynesians got to the islands just by floating there on big rafts. He proved this was possible by making a big raft which he called Kon-Tiki and floating from South America to an atoll called Raroia in French Polynesia in the middle of the Pacific ocean. They did it in 101 days, so they proved it was possible. At this point, you might ask, what does this have to do with sweet potatoes or discovering the Americas? On the way to answering that question, first we have to see the big problem with Thor’s idea.

The Genetic Problem

The problem with Thor’s idea was that he thought the Polynesians came from South America. Today, modern genetic evidence points overwhelmingly to southeast Asia as the origin of the Polynesian people. But we can’t simply say they started there and that’s that. You see, there is some genetic evidence of American people’s genes in the Polynesian people. They carry partly indigenous American genes. Then there’s the whole question of the sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are an ancient crop that was first domesticated by humans 5000 years ago in Central and South America. But at the same time, sweet potatoes are a staple food among many polynesian people. They have been eating sweet potatoes for at least 700 years. There’s archeological evidence to prove this. So how did they get the sweet potatoes? And further, the quechua word for sweet potato is Kumar. The word for sweet potato across Polynesia is uncannily similar. So this brings us to the BIG Question.

Who Discovered the Americas first?

Well, this is a great question, but it’s also a silly one. It’s silly because, obviously, the Indigenous people first discovered the Americas. But it is still interesting because that was a long long time ago, and we like to know who has re-discovered the Americas since then. Of course, there is Christopher Columnbus. Then there are the slightly controversial voyages made by some Norse peoples, including Leif Ericson. But It seems likely that polynesian peoples arrived on the western shores of South America quite a bit earlier than those two explorers. We can’t say conclusively when or where they made contact but that they made contact seems almost certain, and it’s extremely likely they did so before any Europeans.