Polynesian sweet potatoes and jungle chickens: verbal vectors

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To this post made more than half a month ago, "The invention, development, and decipherment of writing" (12/30/22), after a couple of important comments on other subjects (Phrygian inscriptions; Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese stimulus diffusion of writing), R. Fenwick made the following vital remarks, and just in the nick of time before comments closed:

@David Marjanović:
Heyerdahl obviously demonstrated that such a voyage wasn't physically impossible. There's just no reason to assume it actually happened.

Except that it actually did happen. It's true that Heyerdahl's specific settlement model has subsequently not held water – we know now that Polynesia was settled rather from the western Pacific and ultimately Taiwan – but at least one successful return voyage in the other direction was almost certainly achieved. And we do have at least one very powerful reason to conclude that it was: sweet potatoes. They've been widely cultivated by eastern Polynesian peoples since well before European incursion into the Pacific (the earliest ¹⁴C dates we have on sweet potato remains are from c. 1210—1400 AD, on the Cook Islands), but sweet potatoes are native to South and Central America, and early Polynesian seafarers most likely took on sweet potato cultivation as a result of direct trade with the Inca. There's even a singular but stark linguistic footprint of the interaction, as Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kumara "sweet potato" (cp. Māori, Rarotongan kūmara, Rapanui, Tuamotuan kumara, Marquesan kūma‘a, Hawaiian ‘uwala) is virtually identical to terms for sweet potato in the Quechuan languages (e.g. Cuzco khumara, Ayacucho kumar, Northern Pastaza kumal, Colonial Chincha cumar).

Other evidence for Polynesians visiting South America is unfortunately very thin, but I've read reports from a couple of archaeological excavations – in Chile, I think – where small quantities of avian bone have been recovered that are consistent with domestic chickens, a south-eastern Asian domesticate that formed a key part of Polynesian diets. I'll have to look into the literature a little further and see if the situation on the ground has improved regarding pre-Columbian chickens. There's also a recent study that also claimed a South American genetic component in portions of the Polynesian human population, but I haven't read the article yet.

I consider R. Fenwick's observations to be of such signal significance that I don't want them to go unnoticed by the overwhelming readership of Language Log, so I have brought them into this new post, together with a few of my own thoughts about jungle fowl on Pacific islands.

In support of R. Fenwick, here is some evidence from WP:

In Peru and Bolivia, the general word in Quechua for the sweet potato is apichu, but there are variants used such as khumara, kumar (Ayacucho Quechua), and kumara (Bolivian Quechua), strikingly similar to the Polynesian name kumara and its regional Oceanic cognates (kumala, umala, 'uala, etc.), which has led some scholars to suspect an instance of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. This theory is also supported by genetic evidence.

In New Zealand, the Māori varieties bore elongated tubers with white skin and a whitish flesh, which points to pre-European cross-Pacific travel. Known as kūmara (in the Māori language and New Zealand English), the most common cultivar now is the red 'Owairaka', but orange ('Beauregard'), gold, purple and other cultivars are also grown.

When, about 10-15 years ago, I was running in the mountains of remote Kauai island, I was stunned to see unusual wild chickens in the jungle.  They didn't look quite like domestic chickens, nor were they feral chickens that had escaped from captivity, so when at the end of the day I returned to the home of my host, Michael Carr, I asked him about them and he told me that they were likely hybrids of indigenous (pre-European) red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) and feral domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus).

A relevant study:

E. Gering, M. Johnsson, P. Willis, T. Getty, D. Wright, "Mixed ancestry and admixture in Kauai's feral chickens: invasion of domestic genes into ancient Red Junglefowl reservoirs", Molecular Ecology (2/6/15), https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13096

Abstract

A major goal of invasion genetics is to determine how establishment histories shape non-native organisms' genotypes and phenotypes. While domesticated species commonly escape cultivation to invade feral habitats, few studies have examined how this process shapes feral gene pools and traits. We collected genomic and phenotypic data from feral chickens (Gallus gallus) on the Hawaiian island of Kauai to (i) ascertain their origins and (ii) measure standing variation in feral genomes, morphology and behaviour. Mitochondrial phylogenies (D-loop & whole Mt genome) revealed two divergent clades within our samples. The rare clade also contains sequences from Red Junglefowl (the domestic chicken's progenitor) and ancient DNA sequences from Kauai that predate European contact. This lineage appears to have been dispersed into the east Pacific by ancient Polynesian colonists. The more prevalent MtDNA clade occurs worldwide and includes domesticated breeds developed recently in Europe that are farmed within Hawaii. We hypothesize this lineage originates from recently feralized livestock and found supporting evidence for increased G. gallus density on Kauai within the last few decades. SNPs obtained from whole-genome sequencing were consistent with historic admixture between Kauai's divergent (G. gallus) lineages. Additionally, analyses of plumage, skin colour and vocalizations revealed that Kauai birds' behaviours and morphologies overlap with those of domestic chickens and Red Junglefowl, suggesting hybrid origins. Together, our data support the hypotheses that (i) Kauai's feral G. gallus descend from recent invasion(s) of domestic chickens into an ancient Red Junglefowl reservoir and (ii) feral chickens exhibit greater phenotypic diversity than candidate source populations. These findings complicate management objectives for Pacific feral chickens, while highlighting the potential of this and other feral systems for evolutionary studies of invasions.

Conclusions

In summary, the chickens present on Kauai represent an incredibly valuable resource for conservation and scientific study, allowing examinations of causes and consequences of admixture and feralization. We have shown that birds inhabiting Kauai today exhibit characteristics of both original RJF founders and more recently derived European domestics; these characteristics may be involved in adaptation to feral environments. Changes in social and ecological environments attending feralization are likely to promote evolutionary changes, offering exciting possibilities to study adaptation under complex selection regimes. From a conservation perspective, Kauai's G. gallus now present something of a conundrum, as they exhibit genetic and phenotypic signatures of RJF ancestry, reflecting possible ‘heritage’ origins, as well as traits and alleles from invasive domesticated breeds. This complexity presents many challenges and possibilities for further evolutionary studies of ‘reverse-domestication’ processes.

Some interesting linguistic data springing from Proto-Polynesian moa ("fowl") — I will just list a few, but the whole set is worth looking at carefully:

Any of several species of large, extinct, flightless birds of the family Dinornithidae that were native to New Zealand; until its extinction, one species was the largest bird in the world. [from 19th c.]

Hawaiian — a chicken or similar fowl

Rapa Nui — from Proto-Polynesian *moa. Cognates include Hawaiian moa and Maori moa.

moa ("a type of fowl / bird"), from the Maori word, may be found in many languages around the world

I don't know quite what to make of this Galician subseries, but it's worth thinking about:

(source)

In 1965, when I and my fellow trainees were sent into the Ozarks to learn jungle survival skills for two years in the mountains of Nepal, one of the first things they taught us was how to decapitate a Gallus gallus (they do exist in the wild there) without a knife.  I won't tell you how we did it, but some of us did it and some of us couldn't bring ourselves to do it.

Selected readings

 



56 Comments »

  1. Scott P. said,

    January 18, 2023 @ 10:20 pm

    Sweet potatoes likely arrived in Polynesia from South America, but that doesn't prove humans were the vector. Plants in theory could have floated across, much like Heyerdahl's raft, or seeds been carried in bird guano.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 18, 2023 @ 11:05 pm

    But what about all those words? Did the words float across too?

  3. martin schwartz said,

    January 18, 2023 @ 11:10 pm

    @Scott P.: And what of the apparent correlation in the names
    of the plant? Surely it's likely that these were brought by the importers, no?

  4. Doctor Science said,

    January 18, 2023 @ 11:47 pm

    Seeing the title, I was hoping that you would be presenting some linguistic insights into pre-Columbian chickens in South America.

  5. maidhc said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 1:54 am

    Heyerdahl showed that it is possible to go from South America to Polynesia on a raft. He didn't try the return voyage. I think it is mostly a matter of currents.

    Obviously the Polynesians got as far as New Zealand, but I don't think they did the return voyage, although I believe it has been done in modern times. Also Easter Island seems to have been fairly isolated after the initial settlement. But other than that, the Polynesians did plenty of voyaging in both directions.

    In the north Pacific, the Spaniards did an annual trading voyage from Mexico to Manila , but they had to go way up into the Gulf of Alaska to find a return current.

    If you read Heyerdahl's book, he uses early Spanish sources to document that there was plenty of trade up and down the west coast of South America in sea-going balsa rafts when the Spanish arrived. Also, he demonstrated that such a raft could be sailed to windward.

    So it's possible that one of those rafts was blown out to sea with its cargo of sweet potatoes, arrived in Polynesia and wasn't able to get home. Without trying to argue that there was a lot of trade back and forth.

  6. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 2:00 am

    Thank you Victor for drawing attention to R. Fenwick's post. I had indeed missed it at the time.

    The Polynesian mode of exploration was to set out _against_ the Trade Winds — in the expectation they would bring you home. That's why Heyerdahl's 'one way journey' was a pointless exercise.

    The scanty evidence of Polynesians visiting S. America gives me grave doubts here. Even for places they didn't settle, we have evidence of seashell middens and caves/refuges with evidence of butchering and preserving bird meat for carrying back home. If Polynesians got to mainland S. America, and apprehended it as a source of food, why not make repeat visits — indeed, why not settle? And why not bring back mammals for food? (The dogs and rats arrived from Asia, along with the humans.)

    That Kumara float seems at least as plausible an explanation. Do we know how Quechua pronounced that word (_if_ it's that word) a thousand years ago?

    I'm not getting why Prof Mair is including Moa (and variants of that word) in context of possible contact with South America. Fossil evidence [per wikipedia] "The earliest moa remains [in NZ] come from the Miocene" — IOW millions of years before human settlement across the Pacific. "The moa's closest relatives are small terrestrial South American birds called the tinamous, which can fly."

  7. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 2:12 am

    @maidhc Obviously the Polynesians got as far as New Zealand, but I don't think they did the return voyage,

    [wp on Māori history] The history of the Māori began with the arrival of Polynesian settlers in New Zealand (Aotearoa in Māori), in a series of ocean migrations in canoes starting from the late 13th or early 14th centuries.

    The "series of" is usually taken to mean the later settlers knew where and what they were coming to. But we're relying on foundation myths, not archaeological evidence. If only Polynesians had though to work stone or invent writing or something more permanent.

    As I mentioned above re setting out against the Trade Winds, the whole exercise does seem to be based on expecting to return.

  8. maidhc said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 5:56 am

    AntC: My comment was based on the events on the Chatham Islands. These islands were settled around the same time as the Maori arrival in New Zealand. So these people were basically the same people as the original Maori. It seems that communication was limited thereafter, although the Maori were aware of them.

    In 1835, Maori used European ships to travel to the Chatham Islands and slaughter all the inhabitants. So before then there was not a lot of communication.

    I think a lot of the Polynesian expansion was due to people wanting to get away from the chiefs and the kahunas. Being out on the ocean, people would become aware that there was land to the east, and when things got too bad from oppression from the elite, they would move out.

    That trend continued until there wasn't anywhere further to go. Hawaii was settled around 1200, but the chiefs showed up about 1400 and took control. There was no land further to the east that was accessible.

    I don't know how easy it would be for Polynesians to get to South America. It's possible that they did it a few times, but without being a major cultural influence.

    Look at Leif Eriksson in North America. He managed to get there, but he didn't stay long and had no lasting influence.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 7:33 am

    @Doctor Science

    I can't do everything in my posts, but I can raise some key issues. Thank you for providing important evidence in support of one of the issues I raised.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 8:07 am

    @AntC

    Since you disavow virtually everything in it, I don't see why you thank me for calling attention to R. Fenwick's post. One would think that you"d find at least something of value in it.

  11. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 8:22 am

    @maidhc I think you're taking a Euro-centric view on oceanic exploration. Leif Eriksson was never long out of the sight of land, he hugged the coast around Greenland.

    (I'm basing the following on Michael King's magisterial History [Penguin]. Here's some juicy bits, pp 48-49):

    It seems most likely that, matching the pattern elsewhere, New Zealand was located during a voyage of discovery and settled as a result of subsequent and deliberate voyages of colonisation by several, possibly many, canoes. …

    … the discovery of Mayor Island obsidian on Raoul Island in the Kermadec group, half way between New Zealand and tropical Polynesia, which can have been left there only in the course of return journeys …

    Analysis of kiore mitochondrial DNA suggests that there were multiple colonisations by the rat in New Zealand — meaning many introductions …

    Being out on the ocean, people would become aware that there was land to the east, — sounds to me hand-wavey. Aotearoa is to the South-West of Cook Islands; and much further away than from (say) Fiji. But since we've now crossed to the Southern Hemisphere, the prevailing winds are from the SW — that is, from Aotearoa to Cook Islands, _not_ from Aotearoa to Fiji.

    In Oceania, although there are some chains of islands where you can see cloud cover from afar even though you can't see the next island itself, the distances we're talking about are huge compared to the North Atlantic. Why would anyone (no matter how experienced) set off in a random direction with no certainty they'd find land? And if they didn't come back, would you hypothesise they found land and follow in the same direction? Or would you hypothesise they'd perished?

    The settlers on the Chatham Islands _were_ Māori, simpliciter. Most Māori tribes were at war with each other continually. (There's evidence of periodic dramatic depletions in the population in Aotearoa, even before the Europeans arrived.) At European arrival, favoured/politically savvy tribes got firearms and wiped out/enslaved the tribe(s) on the Chathams; then the victors rewrote history to suggest the victims were some other race ('Moriori'). Similarly, Ngai Tahu who were a North Island tribe, took over most of the South Island (whose southern extremes were too inhospitable during the winter for permanent settlement, but whose NW zones were pleasant enough) — to the continuing chagrin of the remnants of tribes in the NW.

    there was not a lot of communication. [after the period of several hundred years of expansion] is indeed something for which there's no adequate explanation. It applies not just for communication between Aotearoa and the Chathams, but between all the widely separated island groups.

  12. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 9:32 am

    @Victor, I was thanking you and R.Fenwick for stimulating the discussion.

    I have "grave doubts" is not saying I "disavow" the idea completely. I'm looking for stronger evidence.

    Note that Heyerdahl both knew there was an island to aim at, and relied on modern navigation instruments to get there. Heyerdahl's full hypothesis of a South American origin of the Polynesian peoples is generally rejected by scientists today. [wp]

    As to the linguistic evidence, surely it's reasonable to point out the seductiveness of chance sound-alike? And surely we should ascertain the Quechuan pronunciation as at the time of the hypothesised contact. (Indeed does 'kumar/a' fit the sound pattern of Quechua? There definitely was contact between Polynesians and South America during the European exploration era. Did the word arrive _from_ Polynesia into Quechua much later? How far back is it attested in Quechua?) And we should apply the standard Philology/Comparative Method tests for vocabulary transfer. Is there a purely Proto-Polynesian etymological explanation for 'kumara'? Perhaps derived from a word for root or tuber or gourd …? (Indeed does 'kumara'/etc fit the sound pattern of Polynesian languages? Which would be the hypothesised earliest language to adopt it? Does the word appear in the languages of North-Western Polynesia/those settled first from Asia/those that would have been last to receive the things themselves?) Are there other Polynesian words that could derive from South American languages?

    Or did Polynesians travel the huge distance from Easter Island, stay only a short time, exchange a few genes, take those strange tubers and the word for them, but nothing else; and completely omit to mention the experience in their mythologies?

    We know coconuts float from island to island and can spontaneously start growing at landfall. Then why not kumara? But I am also speculating.

  13. languagehat said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 9:39 am

    I agree with AntC: the hypothesis is attractive but the evidence does not remotely prove it. The role of coincidence in life is almost universally underestimated, and this is yet another example.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 9:44 am

    No, it is "surely" NOT "reasonable" to attribute these multiple occurrences in different languages and topolects to "chance sound-alike" because they come from different vectors and at different times. Moreover, though they resemble each other closely, they are not identical.

    Over the years, you have demonstrated a strong vested interest in dismissing all likelihood of long distance cultural transmission. That is not a very scientific attitude, when linguistics, archeology, and other disciplines tell us otherwise.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 9:46 am

    Ditto to languagehat, who made his comment while I was preparing mine.

  16. Chris Button said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 10:40 am

    I’m squarely in the R. Fenwick camp on this one.

    Having said that, if we really want to start speculating …

    @AntC

    Is there a purely Proto-Polynesian etymological explanation for 'kumara'? Perhaps derived from a word for root or tuber or gourd …?

    We do have Arabic qarʿa “pumpkin, gourd” and it’s relationship with Old Chinese 瓜 qráɣ “melon”

  17. Chris Button said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 10:42 am

    *its relationship (I blame spell check, or maybe I’m just getting old …)

  18. Allan from Iowa said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 10:44 am

    Has anyone researched the sweet potato genetics? Do we know how long the Polynesian population has been separated from the South American population?

    Coconuts with their thick shells have evolved to float from one island to another. But it seems unlikely to me that tubers could survive such a journey, unless we have evidence that it must have happened before there were any people in Polynesia.

  19. languagehat said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 2:13 pm

    Over the years, you have demonstrated a strong vested interest in dismissing all likelihood of long distance cultural transmission.

    And you have demonstrated a strong vested interest in encouraging ideas of long distance cultural transmission, with little apparent interest in plausibility by what I would call normal standards. That too is not a very scientific attitude. I would hope that, rather than peremptorily dismissing comments that don't share your approach, you would welcome a healthy diversity of opinion and the exchange of views it makes possible. It is very unlikely that any of us is completely and totally correct, so it's good to bear in mind the range of possibilities.

  20. Stephen said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 2:20 pm

    Unfortunately my books are all packed and in storage for a few months, so no references here. But recently scholars have been looking at climatic changes and consequent changes in predominant winds during the period of settlement of the Pacific. It is theorised that for a couple of hundred years at a time, return voyages (easterly voyages) were substantially easier than they are now because wind patterns were different, and this is based on historic climatic evidence. So that could explain oral accounts of communication and return that seem unlikely now.

    https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/20151956/migration-windows-highlighted-in-new-research

    It continues to bother me how some people completely discount oral history when oral cultures work hard to preserve memory. Sure, it's subject to change, but it's not NOTHING.

  21. Chester Draws said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 2:40 pm

    Heyerdahl obviously demonstrated that such a voyage wasn't physically impossible.

    No he didn't.

    Heyerdahl had the Kon Tiki towed out past the Humboldt Current. Without that his raft would never have made the crossing. It was a total fraud. South Americans could never have sailed long distances West.

    South Americans never even made it to the Galapagos. The scanty evidence they did comes again from the fraud Thor Heyerdahl.

    Now the Polynesians were several orders of magnitude better as sailors. They could have crossed back from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Peru and back. They sailed long distances frequently, sometimes in quite large numbers.

    So while the Kumara (delicious as chips incidentally) is accepted in NZ as having come from voyages to South America, there is no way the trip was made by the Amerindians.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 4:53 pm

    @languagehat

    We will continue to encourage the variety of opinion that appears here on Language Log day in and day out, year after year — including yours and Chester Draws'.

    Indeed, my latest post was made on behalf of AntC.

  23. maidhc said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 6:06 pm

    I was reading this article about the Chumash Indians (who lived in southern California)

    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2023/1/19/2147551/-Indians-201-A-very-short-overview-of-California-s-Chumash-Indians

    and I discovered a possibly relevant item.

    The Chumash words for the sewn-plank canoes are not consistent with their own language, but instead appear to be of Polynesian origin. Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar write:

    “Southern California is the only place in Native North America where sewn-plank boat technology was present, yet this technique was common throughout Polynesia and it seems likely, in light of the linguistics, that the Chumash and Gabrielino learned the technique from Polynesian seafarers.”

    In his book Indians, William Brandon reports:

    “These plank canoes were unique in North America, and only known elsewhere in the hemisphere at a spot on the coast of Chile.”

  24. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 6:31 pm

    @Stephen It continues to bother me how some people completely discount oral history when oral cultures work hard to preserve memory. Sure, it's subject to change, but it's not NOTHING.

    In the case of Māori oral history, we need to be cautious. There's a foundation myth of a Polynesian explorer named 'Kupe' [see wp]. Michael King's note:

    Oddly, this myth was Pakeha in origin, rather than Māori. Māori came to embrace it solely as a result of its widespread publication and dissemination in NZ primary schools between the 1910s and the 1970s.
    [Pointing this out is as a prolegomena to discussing the evidence there were multiple waves of settlement, and frequent return trips. So no single adventurer identifiable as 'Kupe']

    Thank you for the suggestion climate change put paid to the ease (ha!) of return trips.

    I've also above noted the conscious myth-building/self-justification of 'Moriori' as being somehow not-Māori. ('Myth' here in the sense of downright fabrication.)

    What we _don't_ appear to have (although this isn't something I've looked into deeply) is any myths of exploration to a large continent at the extreme East of the Pacific.

    I would be enthralled if it were so. Contra @Victor, I have no interest vested in it either way. I am seeking only evidence, in a context that has been frequently mired in make-believe. (King has to take up space — wearily — debunking the early C20th myth that Māori were Vikings who got lost — or at least that Vikings settled NZ first. This was a blatantly racist attempt to claim NZ as European, on the 'evidence' that there's a rock outcrop in the middle of the North Island volcanic plateau — hundreds of kms from the sea — that looks man-made — to those who don't follow what molten lava can do.)

    Turning to the linguistic evidence:

    multiple occurrences in different languages and topolects to "chance sound-alike" because they come from different vectors and at different times. Moreover, though they resemble each other closely, they are not identical.

    The appearance of the 'kumara' word/cognates in various Polynesian languages does indeed follow expected sound-pattern changes. So we should be able to trace the source-word back to the first language it appeared in. I speculated above _if_ it were a loan-word that would be a language at some Eastern extremity of exploration, and _not_ traceable back to the NW Pacific. There's a testable hypothesis for you.

    To make a start (these are all from the online Māori dictionary): the Māori for (tree) root is pakiaka; to harvest root crops is hauhake; root/tentacle is weri; for tuber is para — specifically the underground stems of King Fern were an important food; kōpura is specifically kūmara seed tubers; (cultivated) gourd plant is hue.

    dismissing … when linguistics, archeology, and other disciplines tell us otherwise.

    There's no archaeology in the Pacific. If there was contact with the stonemasons/temple-builders in S.America, why didn't that technology travel back with the Kūmara? There's no shortage of easily-worked pumice — indeed that was worked to make mud-anchors. And of course working of the greenstone/pounamu for decorative/ceremonial use.

    Linguistics evidence is what we don't yet have — beyond a suggestive sound-alike.

    Other disciplines? @Allen's q re sweet potato genetics is applicable. It might tell where they came from, but not how. (Are some varieties better able to survive long immersion in sea water?)

  25. Andy said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 6:40 pm

    I think this article has the potential to add some much-needed linguistic framework to the question of borrowing, although it's 25 years old. The author is a well-known specialist in Quechua and other South American languages.

    Adelaar W.F.H. (1998), The name of the sweet potato. A case of pre-conquest contact between South America and the Pacific.

    I say 'I think', as I can only find a paywalled version and haven't been able to read it. Maybe someone knows of an accessible version?

  26. AntC said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 6:54 pm

    @maidhc re sewn-plank canoes

    most archaeologists of the Tongva and Chumash cultures reject it [that theory] on the grounds that the independent development of the sewn-plank canoe over several centuries is well-represented in the material record.

    (Jones & Klar are cited on that wiki.) Why would the Chumash adopt a Polynesian word denoting the timber then apply it for the boats? Why not borrow the word for the — err — boats? If you open up the breadth of vocabulary for anything vaguely sound-alike to anything vaguely meaning-related, you stand a high chance of coincidence.

    Sewn planks seems to me a technology that could easily be independently invented in many places.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2023 @ 8:10 pm

    "There's no archaeology in the Pacific."

    I, and countless Pacific archeologists, beg your pardon.

  28. AntC said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 2:26 am

    @VHM But what about all those words?

    By my count we have one word only. (But, fair disclosure, see the pig paper ref'd below.) Then consider:

    The Portuguese for 'thanks'/'thank you' is obrigado (masculine). That last syllable sounds quite stretched-out to me.

    We know the Portuguese explorers reached the Pacific, including Japan. (And we already know of several loans from Portuguese into Japanese — including staples like bread = 'pan'.)

    they come from different vectors and at different times. Moreover, though they resemble each other closely, they are not identical.

    Japanese has no consonant clusters, so we might guess they'd adapt a sequence obri- into some kind of glide, perhaps coming out like 'orrigatō'. The modern Japanese for 'thanks' is 'arigatō'. This is at least as strong evidence as anybody's put up here for 'kumara' being a loan into Polynesian languages.

    You might object the Japanese would surely already have a word for something as culturally marked as obligation/appreciation(?) Then why have they also adopted 'OK' so enthusiastically?

    I'm teasing you: Japanese has an ancient writing system/enough archaeology (in the sense material culture) for us to know 'arigatō' long predates Portuguese contact.

    In similar vein The [Polynesian] name poaka, in spite of its obvious likeness to the Spanish puerco or the English porker, is accepted by the best authorities as a genuine Polynesian word. [for pig — which came with the Polynesians from an Asiatic species, not European]

    The needed archaeology of material culture is what we don't have for Polynesian languages. But I do note that there was a second wave of Polynesian exploration from about AD 700 (the map just above 'Development in Isolation') The antecedent of 'kumara' must have been secure in Proto-(Eastern)-Polynesian by then, because it underwent consistent patterns of sound-change in the daughter languages.

    By AD 700, Polynesians had reached only so far East as Tonga/Samoa. So the hypothesis is (?) that explorers journeyed _past_ Cook Islands/Tahiti/Marquesas/Rapanui, all the way to South-/Meso-America and all the way back to Tonga/Samoa to cultivate the things before dispersing further North/East/South, ceasing regular contact, so that the daughter languages drifted apart.

    Now read on at that pig paper [1916, observation attributed to Seemann "over half a century" before]. I think I'd have to assess it as so outdated and idiosyncratic as to be useless for our purposes — except for the pig bit.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 7:23 am

    "I'm teasing you…."

    Why would you waste your / our time on such frivolous, undignified nonsense, when we're dealing with a serious matter of the history of world civilization?

  30. Chris Button said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 8:20 am

    One competing theory appears to be based on the claim that genetic analysis shows sweet potato in Polynesia to predate human arrival. The attestation of the word in Quechua would then be a result of Spanish colonials bringing it over only a few centuries back (i.e. it’s a recent word there). Apparently the validity of the genetic analysis has been questioned (way out of my area of knowledge), and the idea that Spanish colonials would have introduced the word to Quechua seems to me to be quite a stretch. Often loanwords have tell-tale signs if you look into their history. Presumably this could be done here by people versed in the linguistics of the respective areas.

  31. Scott P. said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 11:19 am

    But what about all those words? Did the words float across too?

    it could be the same as the explanation for why the word for "dog" in Australian Mbabaram is "dog".

  32. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 11:22 am

    So many different words for the same thing, all evidently cognate?

  33. Chris Button said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 12:33 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    Right, and if someone can show that the variations in pronunciation across those languages are not entirely regular, or even vary within one language unexpectedly, then we have a good candidate for a loan. That’s not always the case since a word can be fully lexicalized to appear regular, but it is often the case. An expert on languages in the area should be able to help there.

  34. AntC said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 3:24 pm

    @Chris B the claim that genetic analysis shows sweet potato in Polynesia to predate human arrival.

    Yes I saw that claim (predate by several millennia); but I also saw grave doubts cast on the methodology of the analysis/suspicion of mis-handling/contaminating the sample. So I didn't count that as 'evidence'.

    Also this paper considers the possibility of tubers/seeds floating out from the Pacific coastline on a 'raft' of outwash material. (Paywalled, so I can see the discussion but not the punchline.)

    Often loanwords have tell-tale signs if you look into their history.

    'kumara' seems to fit the sound pattern of Proto-(Eastern)-Polynesian [see the pig paper], and there seem to be regular sound changes to give its forms in today's daughter languages. But yes we could do with comment from experts in those respective areas.

  35. Chester Draws said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 4:55 pm

    "There's no archaeology in the Pacific."

    I, and countless Pacific archeologists, beg your pardon.

    Yes, my jaw dropped on that one too!

  36. David Marjanović said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 8:23 am

    Oh, I'm very sorry I missed this! I was not talking about Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl's raft he used to cross half the Pacific, but about Ra, the raft he used to cross the Atlantic. After all, we were talking about writing, not sweet potatoes, and if Mesoamerican writing, which is much older than human habitation of most of the Pacific, came from the Old World, it had to have crossed the Atlantic, not the Pacific.

    Medieval Polynesian navigation, boat-building and sailing skills are orders of magnitude above a reed raft. I have no problem with the possibility that Polynesians reached the Americas, and the sweet-potato case seems quite convincing to me.

    (I haven't read up on the chickens, and the Chumash case looked quite implausible the last time I read up on the evidence – I'll try to find my source. However, it is pretty much obvious that Polynesian seafarers were physically capable of reaching California.)

  37. R. Fenwick said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 12:58 pm

    Whew. I never expected my comment to blow up like it has. I've spent all day trying to put together responses to several different commenters, so my apologies for the length of what's about to come.

    @Scott P.: Sweet potatoes likely arrived in Polynesia from South America, but that doesn't prove humans were the vector.

    Evidence supports. Nothing "proves".

    Plants in theory could have floated across, much like Heyerdahl's raft, or seeds been carried in bird guano.

    Floating to the region on vegetation mats is hypothetically possible. Further support could be obtained from other South American taxa that made Polynesian landfall this way. (I don't know of any literature that's identified such taxa, but then, this is not my field of specialisation.) They could not have floated across alone, though; the fruits of sweet potato are dry capsules that apparently don't remain buoyant for sufficiently long to be carried from South America to anywhere in Polynesia. Seed dispersal by birds is also highly unlikely. The capsule of sweet potato is dry, small, indistinct, contains only four seeds each, and at ripeness it dehisces and scatters its seeds to the ground; in every conceivable way it's evolutionarily bad for attracting birds.

    @AntC: Even for places they didn't settle, we have evidence of seashell middens and caves/refuges with evidence of butchering and preserving bird meat for carrying back home.

    But the difference is that there weren't already people living in any of those places. Nor were there already people living in any of the places they did settle. By contrast, if they got to South America they would have arrived there not only onto already-settled territory, but onto already-settled territory under the control of a major centralised political power.

    (I erroneously surmised this to have been the Inca Empire in my original comment, but given the timeframe of the Polynesians in the eastern Pacific and the ¹⁴C dates of the El Arenal 1 chicken remains, the imperial power in question would more likely have been the Tiwanaku or Wari.)

    If Polynesians got to mainland S. America, and apprehended it as a source of food, why not make repeat visits

    Why not indeed, and in fact they may very well have done exactly that. The Chilean site of El Arenal 1, the place where the chicken bones were identified, is more than 2,500 km south of Cuzco and a good 1,500 km south of the southernmost currently known extent of the sphere of Tiwanaku control. It seems improbable that this would have been part of the same voyage.

    That Kumara float seems at least as plausible an explanation.

    To float is one thing, but it's quite another to float for between 80 and 120 days in highly saline ocean water and remain viable at the other end, especially since sweet potatoes are rather salt-sensitive (it seems there's even a research project at the moment in Kosrae, aimed at trying to develop salt-tolerant cultivars for Micronesia). If a natural dispersal is responsible for sweet potato in Polynesia, it likely occurred via floating vegetation mats; avian dispersal is unlikely because of the characteristics of sweet potato fruit (see above). Plus there's the fact that sweet potatoes are usually self-infertile, so you'd need *two* plants to make landfall in this way at the same time in the same place, which is considerably less likely if we're talking about floating tubers.

    Do we know how Quechua pronounced that word (_if_ it's that word) a thousand years ago?

    No, but with written evidence alone we can get about halfway there. Colonial Chincha cumar = Classical Spanish camote "sweet potato" dates to 1586, and is first recorded in the first edition of the anonymous Arte y vocabulario en la lengua general del Peru, llamada Quichua, y en la lengua Española. (This also predates European incursions into Polynesia.) Presuming that Classical Spanish phonology isn't radically different from our current understanding (and there's no reason to think that it might be), the Colonial Chincha word was pronounced approximately as [kumar].

    As to the linguistic evidence, surely it's reasonable to point out the seductiveness of chance sound-alike?

    In the face of zero other evidence for contact, maybe. But this resemblance does not exist in a vacuum: archaeological and genetic evidence are independent lines of evidence for a very similar conclusion. What's more, even from an internal linguistic point of view we're not talking Greenberg-and-Ruhlen levels of phonetic or semantic reach here, either; we're talking exact identity in both sound and meaning (allowing solely for a trivial Polynesian vocalic echo-epenthesis, bringing the putative form in line with the language's rigid syllable constraints), which makes a chance resemblance considerably less likely.

    Since you bring it up, here are some serviette stats on it potentially being coincidence, based upon reconstructed phonologies of Proto-Polynesian and Proto-Quechuan (both phonologically close enough to all of their daughters that confounding variables should be pretty few). For Proto-Polynesian (PPn), I used a typical inventory as exemplified in Jeff Marck, Topics in Polynesian language and culture history (2000:22, 74); for Proto-Quechuan (PQ) I used the full inventory exemplified in W. F. H. Adelaar and P. C. Muysken, The languages of the Andes (2004:196), i.e. with their two rare/questionable consonants /l ɽ/.

    PPn: /p t k ʔ m n ŋ f s h r l w a e i o u/ (± long)
    PQ: /p t ʧ ʈʂ k q s ʃ h m n ɲ ʎ r w j a i u (l ɽ)/

    Numerically, the inventories pan out as 13 consonants + 5 vowels for PPn, and 18 consonants (two very rare) + 3 vowels for PQ. Now, let's take PPn *kumara as the target to match. PQ syllables may take the form V, VC, CV, or CVC, though sequences of contiguous vowels are forbidden; PQ lexical roots must be minimally disyllabic, with most being di- or trisyllabic (longer roots appear to be comparatively rare in Quechuan, so can be ignored for these calculations and would only diminish the chance of a random match further even if they were included). These constraints produce 24 different patterns of consonant and vowel within PQ lexical roots; of these, two – CVCVC and CVCVCV – could plausibly match the PPn target.

    Taking all that into account, the chance that the PQ word for "sweet potato" would take the form *kumar or *kumara, and therefore be an exact match to the PPn word for "sweet potato" at random, would be somewhere in the vicinity of

    1/(24*18*3*18*3*18) (*kumar)
    + 1/(24*18*3*18*3*18*3) (*kumara)
    = 1.058×10⁻⁶

    that is, a little more than one in a million. Though not accounting for language-specific factors like phoneme or root shape frequency, it's sufficiently startling as a ballpark figure that it should be, if not conclusive, at the very least persuasive – especially in view of the independent archaeological and genetic proxies.

    Does the word appear in the languages of North-Western Polynesia/those settled first from Asia/those that would have been last to receive the things themselves?)

    It also appears in (among others) Samoan ‘umala and Tongan and Fijian kumala, but all could easily be back-loans from further east; PPn *kumara should be reflected in Tongan as *kumaa (though admittedly, an alternate PPn reconstruction *kumala could also explain the Tongan form). In any event, the term doesn't appear to go much further than that: Ross, Pawley, and Osmond's volume on Proto-Oceanic plants and plant use does not reconstruct a Proto-Oceanic precursor.

    Are there other Polynesian words that could derive from South American languages?

    I doubt anyone's looked in any depth, but I don't know for sure. Again, this isn't my area of expertise by any stretch.

    There's no archaeology in the Pacific.

    …Huh. When I did my honours thesis, I never knew I was looking at the archaeology of an imaginary site. Colour me relieved that I managed to move on to the archaeology of Anatolia before my friends and colleagues allegedly "working" on myths like "moai" and "adze quarries" and "shell middens" and "obsidian trading networks" could successfully bamboozle me into committing to the Great Pacific Archaeology Conspiracy…

    Seriously, I've been engaging in good faith throughout my responses here, but this has popped my cork a little. Didn't you yourself talk about Polynesian shell middens and butchery sites and such in your own previous comment??

    @languagehat: the hypothesis is attractive but the evidence does not remotely prove it. The role of coincidence in life is almost universally underestimated, and this is yet another example.

    Sigh. As above: evidence supports, it doesn't "prove".

    And the rough numbers I ran above suggest that the odds of this exact phonological and semantic match between Quechuan and Polynesian occurring randomly are on the order of a million to one. And that's without any support whatsoever from the additional archaeological and genetic proxies, which are themselves at least suggestive. With respect, on what empirical basis are you basing your assertion that this is just "yet another example" of underestimating the role of coincidence?

  38. R. Fenwick said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 1:02 pm

    @David Marjanović:
    I was not talking about Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl's raft he used to cross half the Pacific, but about Ra, the raft he used to cross the Atlantic

    Ahh, that's my mistake there. Apologies for the confusion!

  39. AntC said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 4:41 pm

    the odds of this exact phonological and semantic match between Quechuan and Polynesian occurring randomly are on the order of a million to one.

    Hmm. I'd describe that statistic as plucked out of thin air. What are your odds for Obrigado/Aragatō? Or dog/dog?

    So here's another hypothesis: *kumara is a Polynesian word that arrived later with European explorers (very possibly carrying Polynesians) into a few parts of S./Central America.

    I see no evidence against that hypothesis, simply because there's no evidence for/against any hypothesis. The sort of evidence that would come from Archaeology:

    [wikipedia] archeology is the scientific study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artifacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts, sites, and cultural landscapes.

    We don't have material culture, specifically artifacts with writing nor architecture/building techniques borrowed from S.America. We don't have evidence of how far back is the *kumara word in either Polynesian languages or Quechua. We don't have biofacts/sites in S.America showing visits from Polynesia. (We have hand-waving about chicken bones.)

    My 'no archaeology' was a good-faith observation. Even if it was pre-Europeans who brought kumara from S.America to Polynesia, we don't have anything like enough evidence to support such a speculation — beyond a _single_ sound-alike. Polynesians undertook that arduous return voyage — and several times, and before they'd settled further North/East/South than Tonga/Samoa — and brought back only one thing and the word for it just isn't plausible on the evidence in front of us.

  40. AntC said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 6:09 pm

    arduous return voyage

    The point sometimes considered the easternmost point in the Polynesian Triangle. [wp] is today called Sala-y-Gomez, claimed by Chile. The Rapa Nui (Easter Island — about 400km away) seemed to be aware of it/occasionally went to collect eggs, named it for "on the way to far off lands" — although several island groups get to be called that. There's no reliable fresh water.

    And indeed if you were island-hopping across the Pacific, a few hundred kilometres for each hop is typical (the Kermadecs are ~800km from New Zealand, and known to be a Polynesian stopping-off point, see above at 'obsidian').

    S-y-G is >3,000km from the coast of Chile; a little closer to island groups off the coast of Chile — but no evidence of Polynesian visits. So getting to the mainland would be an order-of-magnitude greater distance than island-hopping. First problem: carrying enough fresh water; second problem: getting winds to blow consistently for long enough _against_ the prevailing. (Yes Polynesian craft can sail upwind; but any sailor will tell you progress is horribly slow. For example, records for sailing round-the-world the 'wrong way' are about three times those of the right way.)

  41. AntC said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 8:08 pm

    the odds of this exact phonological and semantic match …

    For comparison, here's a more thorough running of numbers. (It's appeared before on LLog, I think from myl. I mention it because what are the chances a random paper on sound-alikes would also take Quechua as an example language?)

    "Our comparer will very likely find more than 1500 chance resemblances." *kumara being one only is looking rather thinner than the evidence Quechua is related to Semitic.

    In any event, the term [*kumara] doesn't appear to go much further [West] than that:[Samoa/Tonga/Fiji] .

    We're not hypothesising the potatoes came out from Asia. So whatever the vector for getting from S.Am to Polynesia, I'd expect the word to be East-biased. The linguistic question is: are there source words in earlier/Proto-(Western-)Polynesian that could have been adapted for this foodstuff encountered on the Eastward expansion. I suggested above words to do with root/tuber/gourd.

    Note that in Te Reo, 'kū-' prefix/intensifier; 'umu' (and variants) earth oven — how kumara are traditionally cooked; 'māra' means garden/cultivation; 'mara' (modifier) fermented, prepared for eating by steeping in freshwater.

    Note also the linguistic habit of compressing long descriptive wordbuilding into abbreviations, taking just a syllable from each component, then losing in mythology exactly what was the original. The name for New Zealand, 'Aotearoa' might be ao-tea-roa cloud-bright-long or aotea-roa nameofcanoe-longjourney.

    'kumara': kū-umu-māra-mara what we always cook in the oven, having grown in the garden, then soaked in freshwater. Edo Nyland eat your heart out.

    Full disclosure: 'rā' (particle) over there/yonder, also (noun) sail of a canoe. So could be something we fetched from afar by sailing. All hypotheses are 'suggested' by the linguistic evidence — or rather lack thereof.

  42. David Marjanović said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 8:59 pm

    The great big paper on the population genetics of Pacific sweet potatoes, from 2013, is in open access.

    The great big paper (85 pp.!) on the Chumash plank canoes, also from 2013, is in open access here as a PDF file. I haven't read most of it, but it comes down on the negative side. The abstract ends in:

    "In this paper, I give a comprehensive review of Jones and Klar’s arguments. I conclude that they fail to demonstrate prehistoric contact between Polynesia and Southern California. Instead, a review of the linguistic, technological, archaeological and ethnological evidence supports a new scenario in which the plank canoe was independently elaborated in California from earlier dugout boats, long before the settlement of East Polynesia."

    Note that this paper does not cite the genetics paper, but nonetheless comments on the sweet-potato argument as follows on p. 3:

    "That Polynesians have reached South America is established with certainty through the evidence of the sweet potato […] Taking the case of the sweet potato as a standard for establishing such prehistorical contacts, I examine the evidence given by Jones and Klar [on Polynesian contact with the Chumash]. Here the material evidence of boat construction and fishhooks does not meet the standard of uniqueness, in that the technologies were innovated independently elsewhere. The linguistic evidence given by Jones and Klar requires several unattested or unlikely formal and semantic changes, and so opens more questions than it answers. And finally, the material and linguistic evidence can all be better explained through a scenario of local development within California."

  43. AntC said,

    January 22, 2023 @ 12:57 am

    Thank you @DavidM. I've skimmed some of those papers and related cites. What I see is botanists agreeing that a specific lineage of sweet potato arrived " approximately 1000 to 1100 y ago." from West Coast South America to South-Eastern Polynesia, and rapidly spread amongst the Polynesians, all using the *kumara word.

    Later two (at least) lineages arrived from West Coast Meso-America, brought by Europeans. The "tripartite" lineages all got intermingled, whereas the words not so much.

    The key paper seems to be Yen, D.E. 1974 'The sweet potato and Oceania; an essay in ethnobotany' which I can find only behind a paywall. Brief review here. Yen's paper seems to be the source of the claim of Polynesian voyaging. AFAICT Yen is not a Philologist nor anthropologist/ethnologist. All the later papers (also not by Philologists) merely pass on the game of Whispers.

    An interesting tidbit in that review

    Yen confirms the early prehistoric "origin" of the sweet potato as a cultigen in the New World tropics and the tripartite hypothesis regarding its later introductions into the Pacific (by A.D. 500 [sic] to Polynesia …

    I don't know about the state of anthropological knowledge of Polynesian exploration as at 1974, but nobody today is claiming the voyages reached even the Eastern triangle by that early, let alone to the Americas. Let me make a wild presumption that Yen — not being a Philologist — just took from the similarity of names that the kumara travelled by human agency. That review (from Yale Department of Anthropology) hints at wishes "for further discussion of the linguistic evidence".

    For balance: it is suggestive that the place of origin of the pre-European lineage is roughly the place of the *kumara word. _But_ South America is a Very Big Place/"roughly" isn't good enough:

    The coastal languages that use these related names lie to the north of Peru, for example ‘cumal’ used by the Cañari of Ecuador, whereas the Peruvian languages that use such names are Andean and located far from the coast. It is to the north of Peru that the Pacific coast changes from desert to forests suitable for boat construction, and it is from Pacific Ecuador and Colombia that Native American voyagers are believed to have embarked for trade with Mesoamerica in large ocean-going sailing rafts made of balsa wood during the period 600 CE – 1200 CE
    [From here, which is chiefly discussing human gene flow]

    The languages ref'd in R.Fenwick's original post with the *kumara word are in the wrong place. We now have to get from 'cumal' to *kumara. Although, again, which forms of what languages were spoken where ~1000 years ago?

    OTOH, I'd like to see an analysis of ocean (Humboldt) currents and wind patterns: if a cargo got blown out to sea from a Kon-tiki -alike coast-hugging raft, where would it end up? (And did the Quechua put bills of lading on their cargoes, which would tell Polynesians how to pronounce the produce?)

    I'd appreciate if somebody could comment on that 'human gene flow' paper. Too technical and with too many high-fallutin' disclaimers for my pay-scale.

  44. David Marjanović said,

    January 22, 2023 @ 11:13 am

    We now have to get from 'cumal' to *kumara.

    This is absolutely trivial, because no Polynesian languages (attested or reconstructed) allow syllable-final consonants* or distinguish /l/ from /r/ (Hawaiian has [l], all others have [r]). In other words, *[kumal] could only be borrowed as */kumara/.

    * Tonga is |to.ŋa|

    I'd appreciate if somebody could comment on that 'human gene flow' paper.

    Sorry, no time this week.

  45. Scott P. said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 1:39 pm

    And the rough numbers I ran above suggest that the odds of this exact phonological and semantic match between Quechuan and Polynesian occurring randomly are on the order of a million to one.

    When we document, e.g. Indo-European contact, it is my recollection that it is evidenced by not just a single word, but many associated words, e.g. related to horse domestication — "horse," "chariot," "horse bit," "harness" etc.

    Is there something similar in Polynesian? Apart from the word for sweet potato, are the words for "sweet potato seedling," "tool used to plant sweet potatoes," "color of sweet potatoes," "dish made from sweet potatoes," "basket used to carry sweet potatoes," etc. at all similar between Quechua and Polynesian languages?

  46. AntC said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 7:34 pm

    @Scott many associated words … horse … "chariot" …

    Thanks, good question. With horses/chariots that was a whole new technology, with many unfamiliar harness and wheel doo-hickeys each needing a name.

    With kumara not so much: Polynesians were already cultivating/storing/cooking starchy root crops, so more likely already had words for X-seedling, digging-stick, X-basket, X-store, … The Quechua [**] have a pit cooking technique, which seems very similar to Māori/Polynesian hāngī (delicious!) — but again that's likely to be a culinary universal.

    It's more that I would expect cultural contact to bring other foodstuffs (Guinea pigs look a good candidate for sea voyages). "Ch’arki (the origin of the English word jerky) is a Quechua dried (and sometimes salted) meat." [wp]

    [**] Our (alleged) source language is Cañari, but that's extinct/poorly attested [***]. It's quite possibly misleading to look for parallels with Quechua, because that's up in the mountains/possibly a different diet.

    [***] I see on wp that Cañari is mostly reconstructed from a presumed substrate under modern-day Cañar Quichua — dates from the Inca conquest C16th. Then what was spoken on the coast at the time of the hypothesised Polynesian contact, and how do we know the word for sweet-potato was */kumal/? — perhaps that's a later arrival from Quechua? wp's ref [1] might explain more, but that's paywalled, also it seems to focus on Cañar highlands languages.

    Hahaha! Google translate from Quechua 'kumara' gives me "you're right". Pop-goes-the-weasel.

  47. Chris Button said,

    January 24, 2023 @ 8:04 am

    For what its worth, the various reflexes of proto-Polynesian *l and *r seem to be quite extensively discussed in the book by Marck referenced in R. Fenwick’s post. It’s free online so I took a very quick glance at the few sections on liquids.

    In one section, the book also seems to look into when the various liquid reflexes can be used to identify borrowings. Evidence that the word was a borrowing could perhaps be found in that discussion.

  48. R. Fenwick said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 7:12 am

    @AntC: Hmm. I'd describe that statistic as plucked out of thin air.

    I'd describe that as deeply insulting. I explicitly showed the basis upon which I calculated that statistic, which is precisely the opposite of pulling it out of thin air. I was up-front about the aim (viz. the odds of an exact phonemic match, with zero room for phonetic leeway except for a single accommodation to Polynesian phonotactics); I explained which factors I took into account, including the exact phonological systems I was comparing as well as accounting for the most common Quechuan root structures; I acknowledged the factors I didn't take into account (relative phoneme frequencies, quadrisyllabic roots in Quechuan…); my maths are correct as far as I can determine; I even gave explicit references to the sources for the Proto-Polynesian and Proto-Quechuan phonological systems I used for the comparison. Whether or not you're arguing in good faith, certainly you're engaging in bad scientific debate.

    What are your odds for Obrigado/Aragatō?

    It's arigatō, for starters. Even so, the phonological match is vague (Portuguese o- to Japanese a-, not o-; no trace of Portuguese -b-, which could equally well have been rendered in Japanese as -bu-; Portuguese -d- to Japanese -t-, not -d-; in each case a degree of phonetic leeway has been permitted. Permitting such phonetic leeway greatly multiplies the odds of a chance match at every step.

    Contrarily, with Proto-East Polynesian and Proto-Quechuan we're talking about an exact phonetic match, with allowance for just one single vocalic epenthesis that Polynesian phonotactics absolutely demand. I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough. It's not a Proto-Quechuan *čumar matching to a Proto-East Polynesian *komere. It's an exact match.

    Or dog/dog?

    Just to humour you, let's do the numbers (since this one is an exact match). Mbabaram has 18 consonants and six vowels. For the sake of this analysis, let's use Australian English (also spoken by Al Bennett, the Mbabaram speaker from whom Bob Dixon's confusion arose), which has 24 consonants and 19 vowels, counting diphthongs. To require an exact phonetic match, the conservative numbers would then rely on the larger phonemic inventory in each instance (thereby assuming that every non-exact match between Mbabaram and English could plausibly be rendered with more dissimilar phonemes), which here is English in both cases. The odds, then, are 1/(24*19*24) = 0.91 * 10⁻⁴, or one chance in 10,944. This is already almost 100 times more likely than the Quechuan-Polynesian case (in large part because the word is considerably shorter), though in fairness, still pretty small.

    But there's another crucial difference: there's no particular reason this coincidence must have been with Mbabaram specifically, or must have been for the word "dog" specifically. Coincidences of this kind are known between English and a range of other languages, and the Mbabaram dog example is only so famous because it was a great fieldwork story told by one of the world's prominent linguists. So the "remarkable" nature of this coincidence really is not particularly remarkable, because it's just being one coincidence in sound and meaning between two of the 7,000-odd languages of the world. If you're calculating the odds that any word in English might match phonetically with any word of the same meaning in any other language, then the odds become much greater, because you have many thousands more chances to make such matches. (Which is why we know of many other such examples: English bad and its Persian synonym bad is another one that comes to mind.) And even that's just if you accept exact matches. Once you expand your criteria to allow (say) any two labial consonants or any two front vowels to constitute a match, that makes it not just likely, but virtually certain that you'll find not just one, but multiple matches between any two languages you pick at random. (This, tangentially, is why much long-range linguistics up until now has been essentially trash.) Mark Rosenfelder has done an excellent summary of this on his site: https://www.zompist.com/chance.htm

    With Proto-East Polynesian and Proto-Quechuan, on the other hand – and again, I cannot emphasise strongly enough – we are not picking two languages at random, and we are not combing the entire lexicons to look for any similarities. We are looking at specific similarity in a single specific word in two specific languages. If we found no similarity in this specific word, we'd have hit the end of the road: we cannot just look for other East Polynesian-Quechuan lexical matches and then proffer those other similarities as evidence for sweet potato. Now, you could in principle fairly critique me for not including other protolanguages, both South American and otherwise, as potential comparanda. But this is a Language Log comment thread, not a PhD viva. I haven't got the time, the specialist knowledge, the inclination, or the mental health to throw myself headlong into writing a full-blown paper on the subject, especially since Adelaar already did so quite ably a generation ago and others have subsequently dealt with the topic in the literature.

    So here's another hypothesis: *kumara is a Polynesian word that arrived later with European explorers (very possibly carrying Polynesians) into a few parts of S./Central America.

    No. As I mentioned previously, Colonial Chincha cumar is attested in print by 1586. No confirmed European landing on any Polynesian-speaking territory antedates this. The earliest known such landings were made by Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira during his voyage of 1595, on Tuvalu, the Marquesas, and the Cook Islands; a small minority of historians believe Juan Fernández may have made landfall on Tahiti in 1576, but since the Tahitian cognate is ‘umara it's unlikely this could be the source for the Quechuan form either. Also, why would Inca-era Quechua speakers borrow a foreign term for a crop they were already perfectly familiar with? And even if they would, why would they take it from a handful of Polynesians in Spanish custody, rather than from the Spanish who were the ones spearheading the exploration and by that time had already borrowed the term camote from Nahuatl? You accuse others of Eurocentrism, but with the hypothesis that Polynesians may indeed have provided the Quechuan term yet Europeans would still have been the ones to allow it to happen – which is counter not only to the historical record of European exploration, but also to Occam's Razor – one can't help but wonder if it's your own Eurocentrism showing here.

    We don't have material culture, specifically artifacts with writing nor architecture/building techniques borrowed from S.America.

    Regarding architecture, much of Polynesia simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of large-scale architecture you see in the Tiwanaku or Wari areas. Stone resources on each individual Polynesian island are naturally limited, clay for bricks and pottery is similarly not in plentiful supply (especially on the coral atolls), fortification walls and such are less necessary when your home already has the world's biggest moat around it, and the periodic catastrophic cyclones that the Pacific experiences would also tend to strongly discourage the building large-scale permanent buildings. Though as far as colossal stoneworking goes, one does wonder what you make of the moai, and why it should be that the Polynesian island with the most striking examples of monumental stone construction should just happen to be the closest of all Polynesian islands to the South American continent. Not to mention that the Rapanui cognate for sweet potato is kumara, representing an archaic form within Polynesian itself and the one most consistent with the Quechuan. It could well be that they didn't borrow themes from Tiwanaku or Wari stoneworking, but adapted the techniques to represent their own typically Polynesian culture – much as they later did with rongorongo, whose invention appears to have been triggered by encounters with European writing but whose shapes and functions were then developed to express uniquely Rapanui cultural purposes.

    Also, of course we don't have artefacts in Polynesia with American writing on them: no South American culture had a writing system!

    My 'no archaeology' was a good-faith observation.

    Fair enough. I misunderstood an ambiguous phrasing. You should perhaps have clarified that there was "no archaeology to support this claim in the Pacific"; your statement that "there is no archaeology in the Pacific" [sic] was understood to be a general claim by at least three of us here in the comments.

    We don't have biofacts/sites in S.America showing visits from Polynesia. (We have hand-waving about chicken bones.)

    Of course you can say there's no evidence if you're willing to simply ignore the evidence. Also, claiming without robust justification that published research amounts to "hand-waving" is deeply derogatory, whether or not you or other researchers agree with the conclusions themselves. The paper on the El Arenal 1 chicken remains is by Alice A. Storey (et al.) 2007 Radiocarbon and DNA evidence for a pre-Columbian introduction of Polynesian chickens to Chile, PNAS 104 (25): 10335-10339. The DOI is 10.1073/pnas.0703993104.

    Even if it was pre-Europeans who brought kumara from S.America to Polynesia, we don't have anything like enough evidence to support such a speculation — beyond a _single_ sound-alike.

    …except for the kumara plant itself, an important Polynesian cultigen whose Central-South American origin – whether by human agency or not – is in no doubt! I've also subsequently found on the Polynesian lexical database POLLEX (https://pollex.eva.mpg.de/) a note of the possibility that the Polynesian sound-alike may in fact be restricted to Eastern Polynesian for other reasons: "It is possible that all forms outside of EP [Eastern Polynesian] are borrowings as there are no early references to the plant in western Polynesia" (entry KUMALA1). To add to this, in Māori oral history the plant's foreign origins are made quite clear, being attributed to the semi-mythological land of Hawaiki. Te Rangi Hiroa, in The Coming of the Māori (1949:33-34), summarises one such narrative:

    "While Tamakihikurangi, a descendant of Toi, was living at Kaputerangi, Whakatane, two castaways from a wrecked canoe were discovered by his daughter, Kurawhakaata. They were two brothers named Taukata and Hoaki, sons of Rongoatau of Hawaiki. They stated that their canoe, Nga Taiakupe, was a waka pungapunga (a canoe of pumice), which sounds somewhat evasive. They were taken to the village and treated hospitably. On placing the local foods, before them, Taukata expressed dissatisfaction with the menu. He asked for a bowl and some water. Taking some dried, cooked sweet potato (kao) from a double belt he wore around his waist, he proceeded to mash the (kao) with his hands in the water in the bowl to produce a thick gruel. He offered the bowl to his hosts to taste the gruel, and relishing its sweetness, they asked what it was. They were told that it was the sweet potato (kumara) which grew in Hawaiki at Parinuitera and Ngaruru-kaiwhatiwhati. When asked how it could be obtained, Taukata replied that they must build a seagoing canoe and voyage to Hawaiki to obtain the seed." (bolding mine)

    Te Rangi Hiroa's book also pointed onwards to a Rarotongan legend about Māui having brought sweet potato to Polynesia, a legend in which this more cryptic but intriguing snippet appears (Te Ariki-Tara-Are, History and Traditions of Rarotonga, Journal of the Polynesian Society 8 (2): 61-88):

    Kua aere maira aia mei reira mai, kua taoi maira i te āi ei ui-tatau; aere atura aia ki te openga i o Uperu noo atura ki reira. Kua ika iora i te āi ei tau i te kai a te tamaine a Uperu, e kua akamata i te ui-tatau ki reira, koia te tata… Kua aere maira a Māui na te itinga mai rai o te ra ki Iva-nui, ki Iva-rai, ki Iva-te-pukenga, ki Te Rauao, ki Iva-te-kirikiri, na te Pau-motu, na Taiti mai, na Raiatea mai, ki Uaine, ki Porapora, ki Taanga, ki Morea, ki Atiu—tei reira tona turi; ki Āuāu; kua tae mai aia ki Rarotonga nei ki te kimi i te ara ki Avaiki.

    "He then came back from there, bringing the fire and the tattooing tool; and went on to the end (? sunrise)—to the place of Uperu—and stayed there. He got fire by friction to cook the food of Uperu's daughter, and commenced the tattooing… Māui came by way of the very rising of the sun to Iva-nui, to Iva-rai, to Iva-te-pukenga, to Iva-te-kirikiri, to Te Rauao, by Pau-motu, by Taiti, by Raiatea, to Uaine, to Porapora, to Taanga, to Morea, to Atiu—where is his knee—to Āuāu (Mangaia), and then he arrived at Rarotonga, to search for the way to Avaiki." (bolding mine, question mark from original)

    where "the food of Uperu's daughter" is apparently a kenning of sorts for the sweet potato. Te Rangi Hiroa speculates also that Uperu, the end of lands, is from the name Peru; this probably is a genuine coincidence – the name of Peru came from Spanish explorers and its pre-colonial existence as a toponym of any kind in South America is doubtful. But even so, the Rarotongan example with Māui's itinerary remains striking and still may reflect an oral history of American contact. The named destinations form an oral map leading generally west- to southwestwards from the eastern Marquesan island of Hiva-ʻoa (= Iva-nui) to pass the Tuamotus (= Pau-motu) and then between Tahiti (= Taiti) and Ra‘iātea (= Raiatea) via the central Society Islands of Huahine, Bora Bora, and Moʻorea (= Uaine, Porapora, Morea) and ultimately arriving at the Cook Islands (Atiu, Mangaia, Rarotonga). And for the place called Uperu to be eastwards (= "the very rising of the sun") of the Marquesas, it'd have to be in South America: the only thing separating the two in an east-west direction is the Galápagos, and if you succeed in using ocean currents to return from South America to the Marquesas then you don't get taken near the Galápagos anyway. Does it allay your suspicion any further to have these potential signals in the oral histories as well as in the linguistics, the archaeology, and the genetics of humans, chickens, and sweet potato?

    By the way, I genuinely am not a specialist in Polynesian linguistics or ethnography, and I found all this information by using no more sophisticated research gateway than Google. Anyone else could have done the same whether they initially agreed with me or not, and it's more than a little exhausting to argue in an academically responsible way and be met with subjective dismissal and unbacked counter-hypothesis in response.

  49. AntC said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 6:56 pm

    Exec summary: we don't have secure attestation of the sound of the word in S.Am. We don't have secure attestation the word was used in the right place at the hypothesised time. The sea-travels/navigation evidence is strongly against any such voyage being possible or even attempted.

    Sound pattern predictions: Polynesian languages have a relatively small phoneme inventory, open syllables, no consonant clusters. It would seem that also applies for the native languages of S.Am. — although they're poorly recorded. So that increases the likelihood of a chance soundalike.

    Sound match: to be precise AFAICT our evidence (p. numbered 37) is a report from a Spanish priest, not written in IPA. He'd already adapted the word he heard to a Spanish plural (which that paper 'reverses out', fair enough). What other adapting did he apply? So we don't have "an exact phonetic match", we have a spelling-match between a C16th Spanish ear and modern sound-values as used in IPA, mutatis mutandis.

    Source language: the Cañari were overrun by the Aztecs/Quechua speakers a few hundred years after the hypothesised contact with Polynesians/a hundred before the Spanish conquest [wp]. So what the priest heard was at best a Cañar-Quechua creole (Cañari substrate is the description I've seen). That paper's "may actually have originated with" is a typical get-out clause. We don't know what word was used for sweet-potato by 'pure' Canãri on the coast at the time of the hypothesised contact.

    So "Quechuan root structures" is the wrong language to be working from. Your talk of "Proto-Quechuan" is no evidence whatsoever.

    Navigational prowess: it's to the credit of the stupendous achievements of Polynesian seafarers that they explored so far without even the magnetic compass. They were cautious — or at least the ones who survived and settled were. This paper (for navigation nerds) is extremely sceptical there could have been any such voyage. Note the amount of open sea with nowhere to replenish fresh water that would have to be crossed, compared to the island-hopping that was Polynesians' usual strategy. And note that even Rapa Nui — settled after they were already very experienced — is still an order of magnitude less distance than to the S.Am. coast.

    Kumara word in E.Polynesia only/myth of bringing it from afar: Hawaiki is the mythical homeland/source for everything/everyone Polynesian. Stuff that must have come from the West, just as much as stuff claimed to have come from the East. If Polynesian seafarers did reach a _continent_, you'd think that would be so conspicuously _not_ an island, it would be distinct from Hawaiki. The *[kumara] word indeed appears only in Eastern Polynesia — which tells us no more than that it was discovered around the time of the great leaps of exploration outward from Fiji/Samoa/Tonga/Rarotonga — so it was carried _to_ RapaNui.

    Where might kumara have been found? In (what is now) French Polynesia/the Marquesas/roughly where Kon-Tiki ended up. (Which fits where Polynesians were reaching at the start of their great leaps — at the time it would count as the place of "rising of the sun".) And why? Because that's where the Humboldt current and trade winds would dump anything that set off from around Ecuador — by coincidence Cañari lands, but more important where kumara were cultivated. Dump 'anything' — perhaps a natural raft of vegetation washed out from a river-flood, perhaps a Frigatebird that had swallowed seeds and pooped them, perhaps a cargo actual raft that was carrying kumara along the coast and got caught in a storm — perhaps that's the "canoe of pumice"?

    Well then could Polynesians have sailed to Cañari lands and drifted back to French Polynesia? No: setting out from the Marquesas would be the absolutely worst place from which to try going East. Much better (Finney is humouring us) would be to head south from Rarotonga, get into the Forties towards S.Am., then at the coast drift north on the Humboldt. A round trip of maybe half a year. With little/no fresh water — other than the generous Cañari taking exhausted sailors under their wing, teaching them their language enough to tell how to cultivate kumara, and restocking their canoe. You'd think that also would be mentioned in myth.

    But that hypothesised round trip is a fairy-tale: Polynesians wouldn't set off because they'd have no certainty of reaching land and no likely way they'd get blown back home by the time they were running out of fresh water. It's entirely contrary to their exploration strategy. They're not idiots like Heyerdahl setting off into the wild blue yonder with no clue how to get back to the wife and kids to bring them along later.

    "a little exhausting to argue": extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. There are people (non-Philologists) who just can't abide a conclusion 'we may never know', and building castles in the air from soundalikes (Basque seems to be a particularly favourite source language in Europe). " Uperu, the end of lands, is from the name Peru" is exactly the sort of pseudo-science: 'peru' is a perfectly cromulent Polynesian sequence — 'to snore' in Te Reo Māori. That someone found a soundalike in the right hemisphere at maybe 500 years separation is exactly the sort of 'evidence' they'd latch on to. You could also look for the story that Māori were the first to discover Antarctica — also based on a willfully misleading treatment of a single word.

    Beware also of taking navigational myths at face value: Polynesians were co-opted on to European voyages of exploration around the Pacific — dating back to those of Captain Cook. They're great story-tellers, they could easily weave a post-European-contact bit into a prior myth.

  50. AntC said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 7:56 pm

    Peru: wp thinks the name comes from " Birú, the name of a local ruler who lived near the Bay of San Miguel, Panama City, in the early 16th century."; or possibly from an Amerindian on a _Spanish_ exploration voyage.

    So utterly in the wrong place and again 500 years too late for the hypothesised Polynesian contact. This would be another example of the overly-credulous just making stuff up/wishful thinking.

    Does it allay your suspicion any further …

    No: it makes me a great deal _more_ suspicious. Te Rangi Hiroa has a great deal to be proud of (the narrative of voyaging through islands we know Polynesians explored and settled and regularly travelled between) without needing to 'rip the arse out of it' as we say down here. That smacks of cultural cringe, which is entirely unnecessary.

  51. AntC said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 8:28 pm

    Erratum: s/Aztecs/Incas/ above <face slap>.

    ur-Quechua is the language of the _Inca_ empire, with creoles like Cañar-Quechua (Cañar substrate) in other areas they conquered. Any present-day knowledge of 'pure' Cañari has been recreated from the supposed substrate/Barbacoan lexical parallels. Any hypothesis as to its sound-pattern or vocab is more or less speculation.

  52. Scott P. said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 9:48 am

    With Proto-East Polynesian and Proto-Quechuan, on the other hand – and again, I cannot emphasise strongly enough – we are not picking two languages at random, and we are not combing the entire lexicons to look for any similarities. We are looking at specific similarity in a single specific word in two specific languages.

    You are correct, in that the example we are looking at has been sifted out of decades of research in languages in the Americas and Asia-Oceania. That process doesn't itself ensure that the results are accurate.

    After all, if the word for 'sweet potato' were not similar, but the word for 'chicken' was, then that would be the evidence held up for trans-Pacific contact. And if there wasn't a similarity between Andean and Polynesian languages, then someone would find a match between say Nahuatl and Ainu and use that as evidence for the same.

    Ultimately, solid evidence has to be based on more than a single sound correspondence, but on a cluster of observations (multiple word exchanges; archaeological evidence of Polynesian artifacts in South America or vice versa) .

  53. David Marjanović said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 12:52 pm

    This, tangentially, is why much long-range linguistics up until now has been essentially trash.

    It's really not fair to call Ruhlen, or even Ruhlen and Greenberg, "much long-range linguistics until now".

    Source language: the Cañari were overrun by the Aztecs/Quechua speakers a few hundred years after the hypothesised contact with Polynesians/a hundred before the Spanish conquest [wp]. So what the priest heard was at best a Cañar-Quechua creole (Cañari substrate is the description I've seen).

    I really don't understand where you're taking this certainty from. Shifting to a conqueror's language isn't something that somehow happens automatically.

    " Uperu, the end of lands, is from the name Peru" is exactly the sort of pseudo-science:

    I don't understand why you bring it up, though, after R. Fenwick argued against it.

  54. David Marjanović said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 12:56 pm

    A round trip of maybe half a year. With little/no fresh water — other than the generous Cañari taking exhausted sailors under their wing, teaching them their language enough to tell how to cultivate kumara, and restocking their canoe. You'd think that also would be mentioned in myth.

    But that hypothesised round trip is a fairy-tale: Polynesians wouldn't set off because they'd have no certainty of reaching land and no likely way they'd get blown back home by the time they were running out of fresh water. It's entirely contrary to their exploration strategy.

    So: is it possible that a Polynesian voyage of exploration, or even of settlement of an already known island, would stock enough water for three months and then get blown off course (in an El Niño event for example)?

    Because if it is, then the congruence of the word, the genetics and the known history tilt the balance strongly in favor of such a thing having happened.

  55. AntC said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 6:21 pm

    @DavidM I don't understand why you bring it up, … [Uperu -> Peru]

    Indeed R.Fenwick wasn't supporting that supposition. It wasn't my intent to suggest they did.

    I was more pointing out that even such respected Māori myth-recorders as Te Rangi Hiroa are not beyond mixing up oral histories with more recent information/supposition/wishful thinking. There's been a long history of connecting the mythical homeland 'Hawaiki' with all sorts of places. My personal take is it stands for no more than a myth-telling device: "A long, long time ago in a faraway place …"; and that across such myths, 'Hawaiki' doesn't necessarily mean the same place each time.

  56. AntC said,

    January 31, 2023 @ 7:54 pm

    What's been puzzling me about this soundalike is that 'cumar' is a word of the Inca's (Quechua language), as R.Fenwick's o.p. points out. The Inca empire didn't really get going until C14th, and was initially based in the Andes. Only in (late) C15th did it expand down to the coast — so too late for any encounter with our hypothesised Polynesian visitors. (By then the Polynesians had settled all the main island groups, and if anything had ceased long-distance sea voyages. Also we have good evidence of kumara the plant throughout Eastern Polynesia by about 1200 CE.)

    Unfortunately for Inca expansion, the Spanish conquistadores arrived only about 50 years after this takeover on the coast. And that means we had a Spanish priest in 1582 at the Gulf of Guayaquil (in southern Ecuador) recording the word as 'comal'.

    Then was 'cumar' (recorded in Quito north but well away from the coast)/'comal' a wanderwort throughout Western S.America? Vocab for non-Quechua languages is difficult to secure, but AFAICT no: there's plenty different words in what languages are preserved. (Cañari — the language of a tribal confederation around that Gulf that resisted Inca expansion didn't get preserved).

    But surely if 'comal' was recorded only 50 years after the Inca conquest, that would have been the word on the coast back at the Polynesian visit (?).

    Well, no: the Cañari had been particularly rebellious. Ethnic cleansing by the Inca, reinforced by the Spanish meant that the only words the priest would hear would be Quechua. Mitma was the Inca policy of moving large numbers of Quechua-speakers into conquered areas; and removing large numbers of the indigenes out to far-flung parts of the Empire. (Compare the CCP policy of moving large numbers of ethnic Han into Tibet & Xinjiang; and Stalin's policy of removing Tatars from Crimea.)

    The Spanish couldn't get the hang of the Cañari language. "During Spanish colonialism, missionaries worked to translate a catechism into Cañari, in order to evangelize to this population. However, no copy of this manuscript survives. With the passage of time, the mission priests found evangelism in the language of each people to be very difficult. The Spanish rulers ordered the Cañaris to learn Kichwa, …" [from the Language link above].

    I fear the 'cumar' – 'kumara' story is just too neat to be true.

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