Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Kon Tiki Fried Chicken? June 4, 2007
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.

Evidence emerges that Polynesians introduced the chicken to South America.


South America's Araucana chicken (collonca) (Photo by Jose Miguel)

Most scholars assume that the chicken, like the horse, was unknown in the New World before the arrival of the Spaniards. But now radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of a chicken bone excavated from a site in Chile suggest Polynesians in ocean-going canoes brought chickens to the west coast of South America well before Europe's "Age of Discovery."

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.


Pacific chickens eating coconuts (Photo by Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith)

Possible contact between South America and Polynesia first made a splash in the popular imagination when Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed his balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. Though Heyerdahl's thesis that South Americans settled the Pacific was never credible, evidence has surfaced in recent years that Polynesians may have occasionally sail as far as the New World. South American sweet potatoes have been found in pre-European contexts in Polynesia, and the Proto-Polynesian word for sweet potato, kumala, is similar to the indigenous Peruvian cumal. Other plants that may have found their way from South America to Polynesia include a subspecies of calabash, or bottle gourd, and the soapberry, a plant that can be used as a natural detergent. (Oceanographer Alvaro Montenegro at the Univeristy of Victoria recently carried out computer simulations that show New World plants could have been accidentally transported to Polynesia by drifting South American vessels.) Some researchers have even purposed that sewn plank canoes and fishhooks found in Chumash Indian sites in southern California are a technological legacy of Polynesian visits (see "The Polynesian Connection").

As far as South American chickens in the historical record go, in 1532 Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro recorded their presence in Peru, where chickens were already integrated into Inca religious ceremonies. "That suggests chickens had already been there for a while," says Storey, whose is now studying the DNA of the Araucana, a South American chicken that has no tail and lays blue eggs, to see if it could be descended from Polynesian chickens. Storey also hopes the news that chicken wings and drumsticks were being eaten in Precolumbian South America will prompt archaeologists to take a second look at some of their finds. "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."

Eric A. Powell is senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America