It might be time to change some history books.

Prehistoric Polynesians, not European voyagers, may have brought chickens to the Americas, according to new research from The University of Auckland’s Department of Anthropology.

Fancy artwork courtesy of University of Auckland

When chicken bones were discovered at an ancient archaeological site in Chile, University of Auckland Anthropology PhD candidate Alice Storey, along with Associate Professor of Anthropology Lisa Matisoo-Smith and collaborators Jose Miguel Ramirez and Daniel Quiroz from Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile, used carbon dating and DNA analysis to identify the origins of the bones. To the surprise of the researchers, the evidence conclusively found the bones followed the same DNA sequence as prehistoric Polynesian chickens from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Hawaii and Easter Island. Radio carbon dated to approximately 622 BP (years before present), the Chilean chicken bone has a calibrated date of between 1321 and 1407 AD - suggesting the birds were introduced at least 100 years before the arrival of Europeans on the continent.

The chickens’ presence in Chile casts doubt on long-held theories that early European voyagers were responsible for bringing the birds to South America and gives new insight into the extensive—and early—journeying of the Polynesian people. Ms Storey says that prior to this finding, there had been several hypotheses offered to explain how the chicken reached the Americas.

"The most common theory suggests that Spanish or Portuguese explorers introduced chickens when they arrived on the eastern shores of South America around AD 1500," says Ms Storey, who will complete her PhD on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of chickens in the ancient Pacific next year. "But this new genetic evidence suggests the chickens came from Polynesia and underscores the idea that Polynesians landed on the west coast of South America."

Although it is widely held that ancient Polynesian and South American peoples share linguistic and stylistic traits, the latest research is the first conclusive evidence of the Polynesian presence in South America prior to the arrival of European explorers. The findings, tracking the origins and dispersal of Pacific chickens, are the latest chapter in ongoing research on the use of commensal animals to track prehistoric human migration and interaction in the Pacific. The chicken study adds to the developing story based on previous and on-going research on the dispersal of rats (kiore), dogs and pigs across the Pacific, but is the first to provide evidence of Polynesian contact with the Americas.

The article is "Radiocarbon and DNA Evidence for a Pre-Columbian Introduction of Polynesian Chickens to Chile" and is authored by Alice Storey, José Miguel Ramírez, Daniel Quiroz, David Burley, David Addison, Richard Walter, Atholl Anderson, Terry Hunt, J. Stephen Athens, Leon Huynen, Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith.