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Polynesian Chickens in Chile Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Eric A. Powell

A more recent study published in the July 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and based on testing a larger number of chicken bones concluded that the DNA matched that of European chickens and that contamination resulted in the radiocarbon date appearing to be older than it actually was.

Polynesian Chicken Bone • El Arenal, Chile

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DNA analysis of a chicken bone from a prehistoric site in Chile shows Polynesian seafarers first brought the birds to the New World. (Chicken: Anita Gould, Bone: Courtesy Alice Storey)

Scholars have long assumed the Spaniards first introduced chickens to the New World along with horses, pigs, and cattle. But now radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of a chicken bone excavated from a site in Chile suggest Polynesians in oceangoing canoes brought chickens to the west coast of South America well before Europe's "Age of Discovery."

An international team, including bioarchaeologist Alice Storey of the University of Auckland, made the startling discovery after analyzing a recently excavated chicken bone from the Chilean site of El Arenal, a settlement of the Mapuche, a people who lived on the southern fringe of the Inca empire from about A.D. 1000 to 1500.

The team found that the chicken's DNA sequence was related to that of chickens whose remains were unearthed from archaeological sites on the Polynesian islands of Tonga and American Samoa. Radiocarbon dating shows the El Arenal chicken lived sometime between a.d. 1321 and 1407, well after Polynesians first settled Easter Island and the other easternmost islands of the Pacific.

In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro recorded the presence of chickens in Peru, where the Inca used them in religious ceremonies. "That suggests chickens had already been there for a while," says Storey. "It's possible there are stylized chickens in the iconography that we have not recognized because we did not know they were there. I'm fascinated to see what [archaeologists] are going to do with this information."

More Top Discoveries of 2007

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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