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Beyond Kon-Tiki: Did Polynesians Sail to South America?

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Science  11 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5984, pp. 1344-1347
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5984.1344

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An ambitious drive is under way to settle a long-standing controversy among archaeologists and anthropologists. Considered the realm of crackpot theorists until recently, the idea of prehistoric contact between Polynesians and South Americans has gone mainstream. A new generation of researchers is using DNA analysis of varied organisms such as humans, chickens, and sweet potatoes to add compelling data to a case previously based on more nebulous linguistic and artifact similarities. Given current views of Polynesian expansion (see "Changing Time in the South Pacific"), many researchers now think it likely that Polynesians reached South America by about 1200 C.E., after the settlement of Easter Island, and several centuries before Europeans arrived around 1500 C.E. Some skeptics point out that there is still no incontrovertible evidence that Polynesians went to South America and then returned to Pacific islands, and contact with North America remains questionable (see "Northern Exposure in Doubt"). But many researchers agree that resistance to the idea of prehistoric contact is starting to crumble, giving archaeologists a chance to rethink the way technology and innovations spread in prehistory.