Study of sweet potato raises questions about early contact between Polynesia and the Americas

New research challenges the citing of sweet potatoes in Polynesia as evidence of pre-European contact between South America and Polynesia, according to a scimex report (HERE).

Genetic evidence indicates the plant species is at least 800,000 years old — far older than even early humans – and the researchers suggest the sweet potato was dispersed naturally around the Pacific. Hence it was already there when humans arrived.

But New Zealand experts approached by the Science Media Centre question the conclusions of the study and call for more robust evidence.

Scimex quotes from a media release from Cell Press, which draws attention to a paper published in Current Biology (see HERE).

 The evidence in the paper suggests sweet potatoes were growing long before there were any humans around to eat them, Cell Press says.

It also suggests the sweet potato crossed the ocean from America to Polynesia without any help from people.

“Apart from identifying its progenitor, we also discovered that sweet potato originated well before humans, at least 800,000 years ago,” says Robert Scotland from the University of Oxford.

“Therefore, it is likely that the edible root already existed when humans first found this plant.”

Scotland and colleagues set out to clarify the origin and evolution of the sweet potato, which is one of the most widely consumed crops in the world and an important source of vitamin A precursors.

They also aimed to explore a question that has been of interest for centuries: how did the sweet potato, a crop of American origin, come to be widespread in Polynesia by the time Europeans first arrived?

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