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Some 50 chicken bones belonging to five chickens were recently recovered from the site of El Arenal-1, on Chile's Arauco Peninsula. The site is the first excavated settlement of the Andean people known as the Mapuche, who lived on the southern fringe of the Inca empire from about A.D. 1000 to 1500.
An international team including bioarchaeologist Alice Storey of the University of Auckland studied one of the El Arenal-1 chicken bones. They found that its DNA sequence was identical to chicken remains recovered from archaeological sites on the Polynesian islands of Tonga and American Samoa, according to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Falling between A.D. 1321 and 1407, the chicken dates to the period when Easter Island and the other easternmost islands of Polynesia were being colonized.
Scientists studying pre-Columbian chicken bones from a site in Chile said that its DNA matched that of Polynesian chickens rather than Spanish chickens. This appeared to clinch the argument that Polynesian voyagers had landed in America as much as two centuries before Columbus.
However, a new analysis of those chicken bones, published in the July 29 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that the Chilean chicken didn't come from Polynesia after all. Moreover, the bones aren't as old as the original investigators thought.
Jaime Gongora of the University of Sydney, Australia, and a number of colleagues looked at a larger sample of chickens and found that the DNA closely matched that of chickens present in Europe.
The radiocarbon date for the bones appeared to be older than it actually is because the chicken had eaten shellfish and shell grit that contaminated the bones with older carbon. The authors of the original report hadn't taken this contamination into account.
So the pre-Columbian Polynesian chicken in Chile is neither pre-Columbian nor Polynesian. Paraphrasing the great English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley: Another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact.