Sunday, 29 April 2007

Maori sweet potato from afar

THE great kumara conundrum is set to be solved, throwing up a bit of long-distance controversy on the way.
As you’ve tucked into your Sunday roast, or battled your way through bumpy purple skin inadequately armed with a (sweet) potato peeler, you may have presumed the roots of this vegetable are firmly embedded in Polynesian soil.
Not so.
Fresh studies from Massey University show the kumara hails from South America.
PhD student Andrew Clarke says linguists learnt long ago the word “kumara” is not actually Maori, but a word given to the sweet potato by South American Indians.
“The major thing we are interested in is whether Polynesians sailed to South America about 1000 years ago during which they collected the kumara,” says Clarke, who is studying at Massey’s Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution in Palmerston North, New Zealand.
“It was definitely in Polynesia about 1000 years ago,” he says.
Fossilised kumara found in the Cook Islands confirm this and now genetic fingerprinting shows that a family of sweet potato from Peru is closely related to those from Polynesia.
Maori brought kumara to New Zealand when they settled in these southern islands 700 years ago, and Captain Cook found it when he charted these waters in the 1760s.
While this may all sound ho-hum, the kumara connection points to a contentious scenario previously way beyond European imaginings, Clarke says.
If the kumara does indeed come from South America, then Polynesians must have undertaken massive ocean voyages through wild seas many years before Europeans could sail these areas. “It’s controversial because it’s such a long way to sail and then you are sailing into the wind,” he says.
Easter Island is the closest to the continent and that’s still 3000kms away, he says.

1 comment:

Jonathan Stephens said...

Thor Heyerdahl explored the hypothesis that South American Indians could have sailed from the Peruvian coast to the Pacific archipelagos in his book "Kon-tiki". Interestingly there are parallels between stonemasonry/architecture in South America and some Polynesian islands, and the kumara would appear to be another link supporting his ideas.