Field of Science

Sweet potato migration to Polynesia

Over 800 presentations will be made at the Botanical Society of America meetings this week, so there is no shortage of things to learn. Today there was a symposium on the botany of economically important plants to honor Charlie Heiser, a tribute to the late botanist organized by his students. He wrote several great little books, so google him to find them. One of the talks presented considered whether or not the sweet potato, native to South America, got to Polynesia in pre-historic times, i.e., evidence of Polynesian contact with South America. One interesting fact is that the name of sweet potato, kumara, or linguistic derivatives was spread across the Pacific. But botanists, while intrigued by such findings, want more definitive data. And the DNA complied. You see, the problem was that sweet potatoes also spread around the world going east and they were taken around Africa and introduced into SE Asia by the Portugese but that would be during the 1500s. The DNA data clearly distinguishes these more recent introductions from those that came probably some 2500 years earlier. Polynesians apparently reached the Cook Islands and Hawaiian Is. no later than 800-1000 years ago, but the Cook Is. are still a long ways from S. America. But look where the Hawaiian Is. are! This is great because the Phactor doesn't need to change that bit of lecture, just add some new confirming data. But the one new thing learned was the sweet potato is still called kumara in New Zealand!


Eric said...

So the sweet potato hypothesis has been shown to be fact. Or, as Annie might have said, the proof will come out, kumara.

Anonymous said...

Assuming that it was the potato itself that was taken, and not slips, do you suppose they were intended as food for the voyage, or were they intentionally taken as starts for cultivation in a new land? What I love about learning things is that I always have more questions.

The Phytophactor said...

Almost certainly the kumara were for food. Stem cuttings would nave never survived such a sea voyage, but it they were good food, then someone may well have deliberately saved one for planting.