Question: How did the Sweet Potato, which is native to the New World, arrive in Polynesia?

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Question: How did the Sweet Potato, which is native to the New World, arrive in Polynesia?

An anomaly long puzzled over by botanists is the presence of the sweet potato, which is native to the New World, in Polynesia

An anomaly long puzzled over by botanists is the presence of the sweet potato in Polynesia. The Sweet Potato is native to New World, and it is believed to have originated in either the Central or South American lowlands.[1] The subject of how and when the sweet potato traveled from the New World to Polynesia has long been the subject of debate among scientists. Dr. Roland B. Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who organized one of the world’s most comprehensive and functional anthropological libraries, noted three theories that have been proposed to explain the presence of this New World plant in the islands:[2]

  1. The plant was introduced by the Spanish conquerors of South America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  2. It was introduced in pre-Columbian times by Polynesians who visited South America and brought it back with them.
  3. It was introduced by New World travelers during exploratory voyages to the west.

In Peru, the Quechua name for a particular type of sweet potato is “kumar.” In Polynesia, some of the names used are “kumala” and “kumara.”

An even more intriguing is the name of this plant: In Peru, the Quechua name for a particular type of sweet potato is “kumar.” In Polynesia, some of the names used are “kumala” and “kumara.” Dr. Dixon concluded in 1932 that,

An exhaustive, impartial, and able analysis of the evidence demonstrates that the kumara was widely spread in Polynesia centuries before the Spaniards, first of European explorers, saw the Pacific.[3]

Molecular biologist Simon Southerton, in his critical book Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church, takes the position that the similarity in names must have been the result of European colonization.[4] The theory that the sweet potato's arrival was due to the Spaniards was proven to be incorrect, however, with the discovery of carbonized sweet potato remains in excavations at Mangaia, in the Cook Islands. The remains were dated to A.D. 1000, a full 500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards.[5] Additional sweet potato remains which pre-date European contact have also been discovered in Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand, indicating that the plant was widely dispersed before the Europeans arrived.[6] Dr. Dixon rejected the idea that South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia because they did not have the skill to build ships capable of making the voyage. More recently, however, scientists have noted that possibility that the plant may have arrived in the islands accidentally, either on a disabled craft or by means of seed capsules that drifted to the islands from the New World. It is even more interesting to note that during drift tests conducted to investigate this possibility, that the most probable drift route was found to be between Central America and the Marshall Islands.[7]

The presence of a New World plant in pre-Columbian Polynesia does not prove anything with respect to the Book of Mormon

The presence of a New World plant in pre-Columbian Polynesia does not prove anything with respect to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is to be believed based upon faith rather than circumstantial evidence. The data that is coming to light, however, continues to support the possibility of multiple pre-Columbian connections between Polynesia and the New World. More importantly, this data is eliminating "absence of evidence" as a critical argument against a Polynesian connection with the New World. The possibility of plants (and people), drifting to the islands from the New World certainly fits well with the story of Hagoth.

Notes

  1. Patricia J. O’Brien, “The Sweet Potato: Its Origin and Dispersal,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Jun. 1972), pp. 342-365.
  2. Roland B. Dixon, “The Problem of the Sweet Potato in Polynesia,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar. 1932), 40-66
  3. Dixon, 40-66.
  4. Simon Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004) 177. ( Index of claims )
  5. Norman Hammond, "The lowly sweet potato may unlock America's past, How the root vegetable found its way across the Pacific", Mar. 24, 2008. P. Kirch, On the Road of The Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. R. C. Green, "Sweet Potato Transfers in Polynesian prehistory" in C. Ballard, P. Brown, R.M. Bourke, T. Harwood (eds.) The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal. New South Wales, Australia : University of Sydney Press, 2005.
  6. Montenegro et al., "Modelling the pre-historic arrival of the sweet potato in Polynesia", University of Victoria, School of Earth and Ocean Science.
  7. Hammond, ibid.