Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 5: The Theory Comes Crashing Down
Many of Lang’s ideas were fanciful, but no more so than any one else’s at the time. He believed the Polynesians landed near Copiapo in Chile in some distant past and from there colonized the Americas. The historian George Bancroft (whose dubious accomplishments include instigating the Mexican War as acting Secretary of War under President James Polk), wrote about Lang’s theory in 1841 in his influential book, History of the Colonization of the United States, “It would not be safe to reject the possibility of an early communication between South America and the Polynesia world.” The distinguished French naturalist Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages also considered American voyages likely in his 1866 work, The Polynesians and Their Migrations.
There was little doubt in those days that the Polynesians could have made a trans-Pacific voyage. The early settlement of Hawaii, more than 2,500 miles from the northernmost islands of French Polynesia and over 3,000 miles from Tahiti, required a tremendous feat of sailing and navigation. European explorers often recorded meeting Polynesian sailors in the open ocean, including an encounter in 1615 by the Dutch navigator, Willem Cornelisz Schouten, who came across a party of Polynesians in a double-hulled ship more than 3,000 miles from their home in the Marianas.
Lang noted physical and cultural similarities between the two peoples, many of which today would be seen as the result of simple prejudice, but others, such as similar types of fishhooks, canoes, and harpoons used by Indians in California, Chile, and among the Polynesians, were not to be dismissed lightly.
The most important evidence was biological. As early as 1770, Spanish explorers wrote that maize, manioc, and white potatoes, all indigenous to the Americas, had been grown on Easter Island. Similar varieties of coconuts, bottle gourd (calabash), bananas, and chickens, were all seen as evidence of voyages back and forth. Most significantly, the sweet potato, clearly indigenous to the Americas, was found across Polynesia, including Hawaii and New Zealand. In 1866, in the journal Botany, the German botanist Berthold Carl Seemann wrote that the Polynesian name for sweet potato, “Kumara or umara, of the South-Sea Islanders, is identical with cumar, the Quichua name for sweet potato in the highlands of Ecuador.”
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