Mother Tongues

a journey through language


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Distant Shores: Did Polynesians Reach the Americas?

There’s all kind of weird stories floating around about Vikings and Celts and Phoenicians sailing around the globe, reaching various distant lands. They’re mostly crackpot conspiracy theories with little supporting evidence.

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Vikings meet Polynesians in the South Pacific? I don’t think so.

But recently I’ve stumbled across one tale of a voyage across vast seas that is defs mainstream-science, thanks to a comment left by the author of Librepost on my Endangered Tongues article:

“…if you really want to hear about an unknown language, try searching for MAPUNDUNGUN, which discoveries are showing may have a Polynesian connection (in South America).”

How intriguing! I had to know more about this linguistic mystery. So I had a chat with Prof. Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago, who studies the settlement, history and prehistory of the Pacific.

A Mapuche Connection?

The Mapuche are Indigenous people who live in Southern/Central Chile and Argentina. Their native tongue, Mapudungün, is a language isolate – that is, a language that doesn’t appear to be related to other languages. (See here for a post on language isolates).

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Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mapudungün is considered endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. It’s thought that while there are more than 1 million people with Mapuche heritage, there are only around 200,000 speakers. And politics isn’t helping the Mapudungün survival-sitch either – it’s not an official language of either Chile or Argentina, plus there’s an ongoing debate about which alphabet to use for written Mapudungün. Let’s hope everyone sorts their shit out for the sake of this mother tongue.

But anyway, what do the Mapuche and their language have to do with Polynesia, 10,000km away? Well, there’s evidence that Mapudungün has been influenced by a few other lingos: Quechua (another Indigenous South American language), Spanish and also Polynesian languages. Ooooohh! Did the Polynesians, who were master sailors and navigators, reach the distant shores of South America?

Linguistic Links

Toki

The word toki is found in both Mapuche and Polynesian languages – it is a potential loanword. Prof Matisoo-Smith explains:

“There’s similarities linguistically related to the toki, which means adze. In Mapuche, the chiefs will often wear a stone adze necklace called a toki kura. And toki in Polynesian languages also means adze. Māori chiefs or high ranking individuals would also wear a greenstone adze or a stone adze.”

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A toki is a stone adze worn by chiefs in both Mapuche and Māori cultures

Pre-European toki have been found at archaeological sites in both Chile and Polynesia, and this combination of linguistic and ethnographic evidence suggests some sort of cultural exchange.

Canoe technology

It’s not just toki either – the Mapuche also have distinctly Polynesian boat technology: the sewn plank canoe.

“Most North American – like Northwest Coast – use dugout canoes and then in South America you’ve got things like rafts and reed boats. But the actual process of creating a canoe by sewing planks onto a hull is a Polynesian design and it’s found in two places in the Americas – one right around the Channel Islands, and one down in Southern Chile in the Chiloé and Mapuche area.”

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The Chiloé Islands are depicted at the top of this image. Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The presence of this canoe technology in South America is a pretty credible clue hinting that Polynesians reached the western coast of South America. A UC Berkeley linguist, Kathryn Klar, has investigated this even further, by taking a good look at the words used in Chiloé Island languages associated with canoes.

Looking at the languages in this historically linguistically diverse region is pretty tricky. Many have since gone extinct, and the data that remains is from aaages ago.

In a language from this area, recorded in 1839 as “Patagonian,” we have

tă lĭnă and tă lĭnă cărrŏ

meaning ship and boat respectively. Klar reckons tă lĭnă comes from the Central East Polynesian word for “worked wood” (tumu rakau), while cărrŏ is the native Patagonian word for boat. So, this language borrowed a Polynesian word to differentiate sewn plank canoes from other watercrafts.

In “West Patagonian,” another Indigenous language recorded in Chiloé in 1917,

kiā.lu

means West Patagonian canoe. Klar suggests this originates from a combination of Polynesian bases: tia meaning sew and loa meaning long.

“I’ve talked with a Chilean researcher who was working on Mapuche water rights and looking at the archaeological evidence for the canoe technology. So they’re finding these sewn plank canoes and they all date to about the time we would expect Polynesian contact to occur.”

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A sewn plank canoe consists of planks of wood… you guessed it… sewn together

Controversial Kumara

The humble sweet potato that accompanies your Sunday roast may just seem like a tasty vegetable, but it’s also evidence of Polynesians reaching South America, picking up this humble root, and transporting it back and distributing it throughout the islands.

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Attempted kumara cartoon

“The sweet potato, the kumara, is a root crop and is a familiar looking starch for Pacific people. They’ve been growing yams and taro, so they would have an understanding  of how to plant it and how to cook it – it’s a familiar type of food. That to me suggests some kind of a selection, ‘Oh we’ll take this, and we know how to preserve it and take it back, get it back home.'”

There’s also a linguistic connection between the Pacific kumara (and its variants) and the Quechuan word cumar, which is also used by Indigenous peoples on the coast of Ecuador.

It’s not just words…

…it’s also chicken genes. A Chilean archaeologist, José Miguel Ramírez-Aliaga, uncovered some chicken bones at an archaeological site in the Mapuche area which he believed were pre-Columbian. South America didn’t have chickens until they were introduced, and if they were pre-European contact, then who did introduce them..?

Ramírez-Aliaga got in touch with Matisoo-Smith, who was working on the spread of animals like rats and chickens throughout the Pacific. She analysed these chicken bones and radio-carbon dating showed that they were introduced at the latest by 1424 – definitely pre-European! Genetic evidence suggested these weren’t just any chickens either – these were Pacific chickens. This is excellent evidence for the presence of a few Polynesian visitors (and their chooks).

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Polynesian chickens made it to the New World before Christopher Columbus

A few similar words and artefacts by themselves don’t mean much. It could simply be a case of coincidence. But the big picture of archaeological, ethnographic, linguistic and genetic evidence, with a dash of commonsense, makes a pretty compelling case for pre-Columbian contact.

“Most Pacific researchers would say that it is highly likely that Polynesians made contact with the Americas, just given the sailing trajectory that they were on. Consistently moving in that direction and you know why would they stop? They didn’t have maps or anything that said they’d gotten to the last island and they couldn’t go any further…”


 

Many thanks to Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith.

Wanna get stuck into this topic? I found this book handy: Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, edited by Terry L. Jones.