April 7, 2013

Polynesian mtDNA in extinct Native American population

The evidence seems to accumulate in favor of some Polynesian impact in South America:

Vanessa Faria Gonçalves et al., Identification of Polynesian mtDNA haplogroups in remains of Botocudo Amerindians from Brazil. PNAS 2013. Pay per view (six months embargo) → LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1217905110 ]


There is a consensus that modern humans arrived in the Americas 15,000–20,000 y ago during the Late Pleistocene, most probably from northeast Asia through Beringia. However, there is still debate about the time of entry and number of migratory waves, including apparent inconsistencies between genetic and morphological data on Paleoamericans. Here we report the identification of mitochondrial sequences belonging to haplogroups characteristic of Polynesians in DNA extracted from ancient skulls of the now extinct Botocudo Indians from Brazil. The identification of these two Polynesian haplogroups was confirmed in independent replications in Brazil and Denmark, ensuring reliability of the data. Parallel analysis of 12 other Botocudo individuals yielded only the well-known Amerindian mtDNA haplogroup C1. Potential scenarios to try to help understand these results are presented and discussed. The findings of this study may be relevant for the understanding of the pre-Columbian and/or post-Columbian peopling of the Americas.


  1. Ok, it seems these skulls are NOT pre-Columbian. As the Botocudos were native to Espírito Santo on the SE coast, they were exposed to sea commerce from the earliest days of European seafaring in Brazil. The famous Bounty was far from the only ship to take nubile young Polynesian women onboard. Likely some sort of coastal trading was the source of this mtDNA

    1. Do you know the exact date of the remains? They do seem to have existed up to the late 19th century, whatever the case, they were native to the Espírito Santo state (just North of Rio de Janeiro) although pushed inland by the Portuguese to Minas Gerais. I do not think there's any reason to think that they were involved in intercontinental trade or that they were significantly affected by European expeditions to the Pacific Ocean (in which the Portuguese were not involved anyhow, their sphere ended in Indonesia but were eventually displaced by the Netherlands and Oman, long before the Pacific discovery period.

      I don't think there's any reason to imagine that the influence owes to European mediation, much less as they were so fiercely persecuted by the Portuguese, who incidentally played no role in the Pacific (all it "belonged" to Castile per the Treaty of Tordesillas)... unless we consider Taiwan, which was briefly Portuguese with the name of Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

      Imagining it as recent European-mediated arrival seems extremely far fetched to me, more so as there is other evidence of Polynesian contact with South America: chickens, batatas...

    2. Pre-Columbian Polynesian mt DNA in Peru or Ecuador would not be surprising at all.

      My problem with this Brazil story is the geography. No one would be so desperate or crazy as to try to take a colonization waka moana with young women onboard around Cape Horn. If they did, they wouldn't make it. Modern carbon fiber trimarans with kevlar stays have a high loss rate rounding the horn.

      Overland diffusion of mt DNA across the altiplano, the Andes, and the entire Amazon basin to leave a mark in SE Brazil and nowhere else also seems extremely unlikely.

      On the other hand, Polynesia was more than decimated by the slave trade. It is an unsavory reality that women were traded between ships for such trifles as a cask of fresh water, a sack of potatoes, a bottle of rum, or a gambling debt at the port cantina.

      "Botocudo children (called kurukas) in particular were the object of a widespread commercial trade. It was a common practice for these children to be captured ..." - The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: South America - By Bruce G. Trigger

      Ok chief - I'l trade this Polynesian girl for those 3 boys, deal? So I am sticking to my theory

    3. But why not think that the lineage, or maybe even the whole Botocudo people, crossed the Andes? The main issue here is that the revised dates for Rapa Nui colonization, which should have preceded or be of similar date to any contact with the mainland, which I think it's pretty much demonstrated that did happen, must have be some centuries before Columbus, Pizarro and the Portuguese colonization of coastal Brazil, when we know that the Botocudos were already there.

      Rapa Nui, depending who you read, was colonized some time between 700 and 1200 CE; assuming the most ancient scenario, there'd be some eight centuries for the lineage to travel across the Andes. Assuming the most recent one, it'd be only three centuries or so. The question would be how locally native were the Botocudo in this kind of time frame. And is there any B4a West of the Andes? B as such makes up almost half of the Native lineages among the Mapuches (ref) and in all America it is the Native lineage which has a more Westerly (originally coastal?) distribution, whether some of this has the Polynesian motif or something of the like, I can't say.

      But in any case, the story you imagine seems rather far fetched to me. The Bocotudo kids probably were enslaved as result of violent raids and not by purchasing them from their parents, much less in exchange of other slaves. After all we know of the Botocudos one thing: the Portuguese hunt them to extinction. I mean: it's not impossible but likely?

    4. And AFAIK they are two different lineages: two Polynesian lineages out of 14 is a high percentage (14%) and does not look at all like any random erratic

  2. Actually, all of the scenarios are unlikely. If the Botocudo skulls were unambiguously pre-Columbian, I would have to accept that some low probability genographic event must have occurred. But with 19th century museum skulls (were they even catalogued correctly?), that is so deep into the age of European tall ship globalization, that we may never know how those haplotypes got down to SE Brazil.

    Another random fanciful scenario: A French ship out of Tahiti with a cargo of Polynesian girls bound for the brothels of Paris is wrecked on the coast of Espírito Santo. The Botocudos kill the sailors and keep the girls.

    I note that one (post-Columbian) Polynesian sequence was found in Madagascar, and I doubt that mtDNA traveled on a waka.

    1. You are right that both scenarios are challenging but we know for a fact that the Andean and nearby Amazonian regions were shattered by many fights in the late pre-Columbian period and that some peoples of the Amazon were relatively advanced and numerous... a few centuries before European arrival, but not anymore in the Modern Era. Where did they go? Did they die out, did they migrate?

      The cargo of Polynesian girls to a French brothel seems a most unlikely scenario for me, sincerely. I don't even know for a fact that such things happened at all (can you provide a documented example, even if they followed another route?) The slave trade was primarily and almost only using Africa as provider and later indentured servants from Asia maybe but from Polynesia of all places?! Would be something like you say I'd expect to find African lineages, maybe Indian, Chinese or Malay... not Polynesian ones.

      "I note that one (post-Columbian) Polynesian sequence was found in Madagascar"...

      This may be an interesting hit. Malagassy are not Polynesians but do have a variant of the Polynesian motif and I bet nobody has checked if the lineage could be from Madagascar at all. Madagascar was indeed affected by the slave trade, although not nearly as much as nearby Mozambique.

      But my primary hypothesis and approach would be to research in more detail mtDNA B lineages in Western South America. If, as I suspect, those Polynesian lineages are more numerous than we usually believe in Peru, Chile, etc. (never heard that they exist at all but I'm not sure they have been even researched at all after the discovery of the Polynesian motif either - could anyone confirm/deny?), then the Andes-crossing model would be pretty much confirmed.

  3. Is it too absurd to see the possibility of some sort of link with that, and Denisovan DNA in some South American (Brazilian?) indigenous people, to the ideas of "pre-mongoloid" (or whatever would be the proper term, perhaps "pre-paleoamerican") early colonization? The whole thing with Luzia (also in Brazil) with her seemingly australoid features. The Fuegians also are tought by some to be suggestive of earlier migrations. I wonder if couldn't it be that the Australoid first settlers had both the Polynesian DNA and the Denisovan DNA that they actually have. Which then got passed to some degree to new "mongoloid" settlers.

    1. There's no detected "Denisovan" DNA among Native Americans, only in Oceania and such.

      The speculated "Australoid" features of Luzia like the speculated "Caucasoid" features of Kennewick man, respond well in my understanding to the relative lack of conformation of the modern "racial" phenotypes in the time of the original colonization of Abya Yala (America). Actually they are not even today really conformed in any sense of uniformity: there's always a lot of variance in looks: Andeans often have big narrow "hyper-Caucasoid" noses for example, modern "Mongoloid" skulls tend not to form a single cluster at all (unlike "Caucasoid" ones), etc.


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