Polynesian crossings and the sweet potato

Historians often refer to the transfers of plants, animals, and diseases between “the Old

World” (Eurasia-Africa) and “the New World” (the Americas) after 1492 as “the Columbian Exchange.”  These exchanges, which included food plants like maize (from the Americas) and cultivated apples (from Eurasia-Africa) had far-reaching consequences for people all over the globe, and Columbus gets credit (or blame) for this not because he was known to be the first to bridge these two isolated landmasses for thousands of years, but because his 1492 expedition was the beginning of regular and sustained contacts between these worlds.  We have conclusive evidence of a Viking crossing and short-lived colony in the 11th century at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and there are many other claims of earlier maritime crossings, each supported with different degrees of evidence.  Now studies of plant genetics on sweet potatoes gathered from Pacific islands by Captain Cook back in 1769 are providing more evidence that Polynesian peoples may have made sea crossings to the Americas thousands of years before Columbus.  Check out this story from NPR’s the Salt for more details on this fascinating new development.  (And thanks to my friend Bernice Melvin for tipping me off to this story.)

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