The Polynesians' epic voyages of exploration and colonization across the Pacific are one of humanity's most impressive accomplishments (even if the
local bird life wasn't likely to have enjoyed it). Having most probably started in Taiwan, the explorers reached and settled on islands across most
of the Pacific, as far north as Hawaii and as far south as New Zealand. And recent evidence shows that they also stopped in South America, where they
stayed long enough to pick up food crops that eventually wound up distributed across the Pacific as well.
By the time they reached South America, however, several large and sophisticated civilizations had already developed along the west coast of that
continent. This is in sharp contrast to the uninhabited islands that the Polynesians were used to colonizing, which raises questions about whether any
of the voyagers were likely to have stayed in the newly discovered land. Genetic surveys of native populations in Peru and elsewhere have indicated
that, if any did stick around, they didn't make a significant contribution to the local gene pool.
But now, some researchers have found some Polynesian DNA in the remains of some Native Americans. Oddly, however, the remains are on the exact
opposite side of the continent from where the Polynesians are likely to have landed. Even the researchers themselves are at a bit of a loss to explain
it; after considering several possible causes, even the one they find most likely gets labelled as "fanciful."
Although the interpretation is bewildering, the data is pretty clear-cut. The authors focused on a tribe that originally lived in the south-east of
Brazil called the Botocudo. This group was violent and independent, and didn't come under the control of the Portuguese colonial power. In 1808, the
authorities essentially declared war against any group that fit this description. By the end of that century, the Botocudo had essentially ceased to
exist as a distinctive ethnic group.
The remains of several Botocudo individuals, however, were preserved in museums, and the authors obtained DNA from over a dozen of them. That DNA was
used to study parts of the mitochondrial genome, which is inherited exclusively through female lineages. Because it's relatively easy to obtain and
sequence, mitochondrial DNA has been used for a variety of studies of human evolution, and there's a wealth of data available on the variations
associated with different populations.
A dozen of these samples produced the sorts of sequences you'd typically see in Native American populations. But two others have a set of distinctive
changes that, to date, have only been found in populations associated with Polynesian cultures.
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