The Pork Road

It now seems clear, from genetic evidence,  that Polynesians from the Marquesas visited the western coast of the Americas – somewhere ( or maybe several places) between Peru and Mexico.

But what paid the freight? Why did they do it, and, I would guess, keep doing it for some time?  It’s feasible, but it’s a long voyage, not without risk.  And interacting with strangers has its own risks, not least when you’re a bunch of warlike cannibals. Taboos get broken.

The Polynesians needed something to trade that was highly valued by the Amerinds & could not be easily duplicated by them. They had some different crops, but nobody likes taro or breadfruit all that much, while the Amerinds had plenty of crops of their own.   High-tech exports?  The Polynesians  didn’t have anything really impressive other than their outrigger canoes.

But they had pigs, and the Amerindians did not. Imagine that sharp Polynesians traded pigs for various valuata ( cornmeal, manioc, sweet potatoes, chocolate, maybe decorative metal objects) .

Male pigs. The Polynesians, being a bit more sophisticated than contemporary Ivy League graduates, understood that generating piglets requires both boars and sows.  Actual, biological, males and females: identification is not enough.

If you only trade boars, the market lasts indefinitely .  American chieftains involved in this trade could have offered their high-ranking followers bacon.  Trade continues until people get tired of it, and of course that never happens.

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127 Responses to The Pork Road

  1. Biphf says:

    “Why did they do it…?”

    To get laid. Peruvian women are hot.

  2. Asher says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a lipstick on a pig joke here.

  3. teageegeepea says:

    Weren’t there already peccaries in South America?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Yes, but they’re not that close to pigs (40 million years to last common ancestor

      • reziac says:

        Seen in the flesh, the main difference is that mature peccaries are much smaller, and generally hairier. (Had a neighbor who kept peccaries for a while. The babies are cute; the adults are aggressive. But same for domestic pigs.)

        • teageegeepea says:

          I expect that they would grow larger if someone started breeding them for that, although if a Polynesian is offering some large domesticated pig vs a smaller javelina you’d have to hunt, there would be some reason to trade.

  4. Bob says:

    Life, uh, finds a way…

  5. John Massey says:

    I love taro, and I detest sweet potatoes, but a lot of people disagree with me. My wife loves them. Sweet potatoes are a valuable crop – they are nutrient dense, you can eat both the roots and the leaves, they will grow well in poor soil, and when land available for cultivation is limited, they will give a better nutritional yield per unit area than many other crops. In 1493, his follow up book to 1491, Charles C. Mann stated that the availability of the sweet potato afforded by the Columbian Exchange enabled the Hakka in China to greatly increase their population.

    For Pacific Islanders, just getting hold of the sweet potato could justify the trip, and some captive young Amerindian women to take back would have been the icing on the cake.

    I’ve been pondering why Greg thinks that they traded boars, not sows. [One thing I know from following Greg for quite a few years is that he always has a reason for everything he says – which is one reason why I still follow him, of course.] East Asians won’t eat meat from boars because of ‘boar taint’, and I agree with them; it’s pretty nasty to my taste, having lived for decades in an East Asian community and eating only meat from sows and suckling pigs. Plus one boar can impregnate multiple sows, so giving away a boar that is surplus to requirements is much less of a loss than giving away a sow.

    One point – the authors of the paper stated that the mixing of Amerindians and Marquesan Islanders was a single event. So, I’m not sure why Greg thinks this exchange could have gone on for a long time, but he must have a reason [see above]. My impression was that it was likely to be a one-off, and maybe even a raid (although it’s a hell of a trip just for a raid, but maybe they weren’t anticipating such a hostile reception, so maybe what was a trip of exploration turned into a quick raid and then get the hell out before the locals got themselves fully mobilised). But, as ever, I am an idiot and open to being enlightened.

    • gcochran9 says:

      With sows, you might – and maybe with careful isolation you could avoid it – by accident send a pregnant sow, which would queer the deal.

      Talking to someone competent, looks as if the Amerindians may have come from several places, which least argues for an extended voyage, maybe multiple voyages. It could have been a one-off, but interesting to think of what trade could have been made to work – if any.

      I have also been thinking of ways in which a workable trade route might be liable to fail and come to an end: gamblers’ ruin, maybe.

      • John Massey says:

        It was a difficult trip. Building on the idea that they might have visited several places, if these were primarily intended to be voyages of exploration (one or several), maybe after a while they realised there wasn’t anywhere new to settle that wasn’t already populated by lots of hostiles. Or maybe after they had got all of the useful new crops that they were going to get, it just wasn’t worth the effort and risk any more.

        • james j wilson says:

          Exploring, adventure, yes. Trade, no. Extremely unecenomic. Ten thousand mile round trip, and a conoe is not a trading vessel. Maybe, like the Viking settlement in Newfoundland, too hostle to continue, whatever their objectives were. Cook was hella impressed with their ocean going sailing mastery.

          • John Massey says:

            James Cook took two different Polynesians on his ship as navigators in the Pacific. That’s how impressed he was.

            So much for Kirkpatrick’s ‘milkweed seeds scattering in the wind’.

          • John Massey says:

            Yes, I was thinking of the parallel with the Norse in Newfoundland.

    • Philip Neal says:

      What’s the paper? And have you got a link to it?

    • reziac says:

      How to deal with ‘boar taint’ (which some people like) not to mention the evil temperament of the average boar?? Same way we deal with male piglets today: castrate them when they’re a few days old and can still be managed with your bare hands. No more boar taint, nor boar behavior. But absent modern facilities, pigs are fairly tough to manage in confinement, never mind on a small boat. They eat a lot, shit a lot, are astonishingly strong, and are destructive escape artists. Methinks any pigs that went across the ocean did so as salt meat.

      I lived for a while on a pig farm… adult pigs are not the cuddly cuties most people envision, and they’re also a whole lot bigger than you think. I’ve seen an adult boar (a medium-sized one at 800 pounds, of no particular breed) flip a 300 pound freezer into the air like it was a toy. (Not just bounce it a bit. He got it six feet off the ground, repeatedly, being pissed because dinner was late. This was after destroying the fence so he could get out.)

      • John Massey says:

        Could be right, in which case the sex of the pig wouldn’t matter. But they got the pigs to the Pacific Islands somehow. (In Papua New Guinea they confine them inside baskets, although they’re not humping around 800 pounders that way.) I don’t know how big the Marquesans made their boats, but Māori war canoes were up to 40m long; not what I would call small. Hawaiian war canoes were huge, and double hulled – very stable.

    • David Chamberlin says:

      It’s a lousy hypothesis by Cochran. They didn’t lug these greedy beasts a huge distance on small boats to trade them with people that had plenty of fish much tastier than male pig. Bad conjecture by a man I respect for excellent conjecture. Anyhow rumblings are afresh that humans were in the Americas 30,000 years ago. Now that is worthy following.

      • John Massey says:

        Polynesians transported live pigs on long ocean voyages. As hard to believe as it might be, the evidence that they did it is irrefutable. They did it multiple times.

        The basic question that needs to be resolved is: (1) did Polynesians reach Colombia and return to the Marquesas with some Amerindians on board, or (2) did some Amerindians from Colombia make it to the Marquesas?

        The response to (1) is that they had the demonstrated ability to do so. They were past masters at heading out upwind, so that they would have a quicker and easier journey back again it things didn’t work out. They had crab claw sails that enabled them to sail upwind, and lots of paddlers on their big ocean going vessels, if the Hawaiian and Māori war canoes are anything to go by.

        The response to (2)? The evidence from the Kon Tiki expedition is that when Heyerdahl set out from Chile on a balsa wood raft with a square sail (aiming to demonstrate that Amerindians could have reached Easter Island), he had to be towed 80 km out to sea by the Chilean navy to avoid coastal marine traffic, and then the winds and currents carried the raft to the Tuamotus, some way south of the Marquesas but a very long way north of Easter Island. But that was from Chile, not Colombia. (So, while Heyerdahl was hailed as a hero by the chattering classes, his expedition was actually an abject failure, just like all of his subsequent multitude of crackpot theories.)

        I guess it is conceivable that people from Colombia could have made it to the Marquesas, but there has been no demonstration that they could have, and there is no evidence that they had the technology to do it or ever did it, and no genetic evidence of their presence, or the presence of their offspring, on any of the Pacific Islands other than in the Marquesas and Tuamotus. There is some evidence on Easter Island, but that came with the settlement of Easter Island, which was later.

        So, assuming (1) is what happened, did the Polynesians trade pigs or salted pork when they made it to the South American mainland? It’s a possibility that can’t be excluded on the basis of the current evidence. I can’t think of anything else they had to trade except maybe chickens, but chickens have been discounted.

        So it’s not a bad conjecture.

  6. sfw says:

    Feasible but a hell of a long way to take even small boars and the food and water, I suppose they could have caught a lot of fish but that’s hard in the open ocean.

    • John Massey says:

      They routinely quarried and transported basalt over distances of 2,500 km or more for trading purposes.

      • sfw says:

        You don’t have to feed or keep basalt alive.

        • John Massey says:

          You’re absolutely right, of course – just one of the many benefits of keeping pet rocks. It makes me wonder how they managed to transport pigs to any of the Pacific islands. Maybe they did have zeppelins after all.

          http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/archaeology/america/pig_extinction_polynesia_2007.html

          • sfw says:

            Their navigation and sailing skills are (or were) amazing, they were doing blue water exploration before europeans got far out of the Mediterranean. Now just the sad remnants go on..

            • Pincher Martin says:

              The Polynesian exploration of the Pacific remains for me one of the greatest feats of prehistoric man. Many literate peoples with larger boats and star charts later could not do what the Polynesians did. Couldn’t even come close. Hell, the Chinese couldn’t even discover Taiwan in a meaningful way until the 16th or 17th century, and that’s a large island about a hundred miles off the Fujian coast.

              And then the Polynesians lost it for some reason. Not completely. But enough for most of the distant island groupings to isolate themselves.

    • “C’mon Mudhead. Where’s your school spirit?”

    • sfw says:

      More likely the Polynesians were just doing much the same thing as Vikings. The Polynesians were fierce brave warriors and great sailors. Instead of trade it would be far easier to just go and plunder coastal villages in South America. They would get the same goods and women without having to care for livestock. Come home heroes.

    • dearieme says:

      The Vikings took pigs to Greenland and fed them on fish. Pigs don’t much like the cold so the Polynesians might have had an advantage there.

      The Polynesians’ pigs died out in NZ – temperate climate rather than tropical or subtropical. I suspect that means the Polypigs wouldn’t have done well high in the Andes either. But then who would try to drive pigs uphill?

      • sfw says:

        There’s wild boars on the north island of NZ, perhaps they came with the english. I live in Vic in Australia and wildpigs are a real problem in some areas. Pigs were common in PNG yet they never seemed to appear in Australia, the Torres Strait islanders kept them but maybe the aborigines were just too fierce for them to settle in northern Qld.

        • dearieme says:

          Capn Cook put pigs ashore.

          You did that in case you were ship-wrecked – it guaranteed there’d be some food (if you could catch and kill them). Or so the story goes. Maybe he just had too many damn pigs.

      • R. says:

        The Vikings took pigs to Greenland and fed them on fish

        Which they apparently didn’t eat themselves, partly leading to their extinction there.

        Found that hard to believe, but archeologist insist that they did not eat the fish.

        • John Massey says:

          They did, the archaeologists just initially didn’t dig to the right levels. They have since, and found heaps of fish bones. I got that first hand from a Scandinavian archaeologist.

          • dearieme says:

            There’s also the point that if you feed fish waste to your pigs there will be fewer fish bones to find.

            Then again I find the idea that Scandinavian mariners didn’t eat fish risible.

            • John Massey says:

              But they did find lots of fish bones. And seal bones – contrary to Jared Diamond’s assertion, Greenland Norse hunted and ate seals. They just never learned, or chose not to adopt, the hunting methods of the Inuit. People can now analyse human bones and determine their diet. Wikipedia: “Bone samples from Greenland Norse cemeteries confirm that the typical Greenlander diet had increased by this time from 20% sea animals to 80%.” “By this time” refers to the mid-14th Century. The pigs were long gone by then.

              • dearieme says:

                “But they did find lots of fish bones” is entirely compatible with “fewer fish bones” – even more so if the fish bones found are from the post-pig era.

    • Kilo 4/11 says:

      The hard way (against the wind) turned out to be the best way, at least at first. Wonder how well that applies in the technological age.

  7. j says:

    Given a few hundred years more, the “pork road” could have developed but instead of pork, the probable traded commodity would have been metals, like in the old world. South America had plenty gold, silver, copper. Polynesians had none but their girls were/are worth a long trip.

    • ghazisiz says:

      Makes sense to me: the ancient Greeks embraced autarky, but tolerated trade for things that could not be produced locally, which were almost always metals. Did Polynesians have any tradition of using metal? If so, is there any work on the origin of Polynesian metal artifacts?
      The distances seem too great for coastal raiding, so trading is more likely to account for the contact. The traders in this trade were most likely to be the people with impressive seafaring skills — Polynesians. But what did they have to exchange for metal? (I’m assuming our host was joking when he said it could be bacon.)
      Did Polynesians have coming-of-age rituals requiring young men to travel extremely long distances away from home? Not trade, not raiding, but something like tourism could have brought back women from the Americas. The exchange of women might have sealed friendly relationships between the sojourners and American chiefs. Is there anything known about mitochondrial or Y-chromosome DNA?

  8. Space Ghost says:

    Speaking of manioc – the fact that the Amerinds figured out to prepare manioc in a way that doesn’t result in chronic cyanide poisoning is one of the more impressive bits of prehistoric cultural technologies of which I’m aware.

    • John Massey says:

      It’s up there with Australian Aboriginal people figuring out how to process cycads to render them non-toxic. It’s a complex process. No one has managed to work out how they figured out how to do it without poisoning numerous test subjects. Or maybe they did 😛

  9. Mike Welford says:

    Did they find polynesian genes in america, american genes in polynesia, or both?

  10. NumberOneCustomer says:

    (with apologies, if double posted)
    What makes it more likely that the Polynesians went east against the current (or found the southern part of the southern gyre) than that Amerindians went west with the current (possibly unintentionally)

    • John Massey says:

      Motivation and proven ability.

    • dearieme says:

      Because sailing against the prevailing wind in periods when it’s not blowing gives you a guaranteed way to make the return journey.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      I just glanced at a map of the proposed route from the Marquesas to the northern part of South America, but it appears to me that they sailed along the northern edge, and certainly not along the “southern part,” of the Southern Pacific Gyre.

      At that latitude, they could sail an equatorial countercurrent toward South America by first heading a little north of their islands.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The evidence is much stronger for chickens than pigs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1965514/

  12. Even before the latest genetic findings, there was a strong case for contact between Polynesians and Amerindians. Here’s a (serious, academic) book, Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World.
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0759120048.
    Places where contact likely occurred: Mapuche region (North Chile). Southern Ecuador. Chumash Indians (Channel islands, southern California). There’s likely transmission of technology, including shell fishhooks and plank-sewn canoes, so Polynesians seem to have had some useful tricks to teach the locals.
    Here’s from my blog
    https://logarithmichistory.wordpress.com/2019/10/24/tales-of-the-south-pacific-5/

    • FkDahl says:

      Near Santa Barbara, CA, canoes appeared that seem influenced by polynesian ones, as well as a type of fish hooks. Notably the Chumash words for those are alleged to be similar to the Polynesian ones.

  13. Smithie says:

    Did Amerinds have the right tech to cook bacon properly?

    And what is the right tech? Microwave ovens and bacon trees? Electric frying pans? Iron skillets?

    • random observer says:

      i googled microwaveable bacon the other day, a product all the rage some years ago. Several pages of results yielded nothing, except that many people now assume you can microwave regular bacon and offer tips on doing so.

      Whan did that happen, and what revolution in the bacon industrial advertising complex did I miss?

      • Smithie says:

        Speaking personally, I’ve never tried to cook it with a microwave, just heard vague rumors. My personal favorite method is an electric frying pan. I’ve heard others swear by iron ones, but I’ve never been a fan. They are not very ergonomic, since they are so heavy.

  14. Frau Katze says:

    Rosenmops is unable to post. Has she been banned?

  15. John Massey says:

    Philip Neal – Sorry for the very slow response. The paper is here, but it is pay-walled:
    Native American gene flow into Polynesia predating Easter Island settlement.
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2487-2

    The thing to get from that is that this ‘contact’ (interbreeding) coincided with the settlement of remote (i.e. eastern) Oceania, which all happened during a pretty tight time window, and which is why I am inclined to think it could have resulted (at least initially) from a voyage of exploration looking for new places to settle, although it was a much longer voyage than any of the others undertaken in the Pacific.

    Razib Khan has a podcast with the first author which is now out, but I have yet to listen to it. I should do that before commenting any further.

  16. dearieme says:

    Vikings in the North, Polynesians in the South. No Carthaginians or Canary Islanders in the middle? Shame!

    • Kilo 4/11 says:

      Driving that train
      High on cocaine
      Casey Jones you better watch your speed.
      Trouble ahead, trouble behind
      And you know that notion just crossed my mind.

    • dearieme says:

      Not Greg says: “The discovery of hybrid skeletons [9,10] appears to lend unquestionable support to the fact that inter-breeding did occur.”

      You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

      “Appears”, sirrah? Nay, it is; I know not “appears”.

  17. Vixe DePorcino says:

    Columbus, in his fourth and final voyage, a cobbled together affair after he fell from grace and the only voyage in which he reached the American mainland, ran across a tribe in Central America that brought pig-like creatures onto his ship, which caused a certain amount of chaos before they were rounded up.

  18. Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    How it happened: The island gets crowded. There’s a civil war. The winner says “you’re my brother, Fredo, and I love you, but you have until sundown tomorrow to get outta Nuku Hiva. You can have four canoes and as many people as will follow you.”,

    • dearieme says:

      That would be one way.

      The likelihood, I suggest, is that a boatful of young men set sail on a voyage of exploration. On their return they describe their discovery, if any, and plans are made to send a colonising expedition – men, women, children, crops, animals. That’s the point when Fredo and his supporters set off. Because, otherwise, sane people would say “you’re on your own, Fredo” and decline his invitation.

      There must be a chance that archaeologists can occasionally detect a sequence of (i) discovery and then (ii) settlement. I’ll look at my copy of Irwin again.

      • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

        “Sane people would say “you’re on your own, Fredo” and decline his invitation.”
        They were on his side in the civil war. Their choice was leave of be the main course in the victory dinner.

        • dearieme says:

          If they’d lost a Polynesian civil war they’d already have been dinner.

          • gcochran9 says:

            There are, apparently, known cases in Polynesia where a colonization effort was driven by an attempt to escape a war they were losing.

            • dearieme says:

              Fair enough, but then how did they know where to sail to? Unless there had been a previous, successful voyage of exploration. The Pacific is huge; the islands are largely tiny dots.

              • gcochran9 says:

                There are techniques that aided island discovery. You could see a high island ( as opposed to an atoll ) from a great distance, even more if it had active volcanoes, like Hawaii. Clouds and wave patterns could reveal otherwise-invisible islands. In some cases, following certain migratory birds. And sure, sometimes people just went for it, rather than be eaten. Knowledge from earlier explorations counts too.

              • dearieme says:

                Yeah, Irwin explains all that – that’s why I recommended him.

                So, what is your estimate of the number of Pacific island groups colonised by people fleeing to avoid being eaten? And how would we know?

              • Henry Scrope says:

                If you looked to the far distance and there was a greenish hue to the clouds, that indicated an island below. I learned that from the late Patrick O’Brian.

              • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

                (anon): “how did they know where to sail to?”
                They did not. Most sailed into the vast blue until they ran out of food and fresh water, and died. They knew that they had to avoid inhabited islands or they would be invited to dinner.

              • John Massey says:

                That makes it difficult to understand how they maintained long distance trading voyages to other islands, in some cases >2,500km – without getting eaten.

                Plus you have no evidence for what you have said; it’s just supposition on your part. If you do have evidence, now would be the time to state it.

    • Frau Katze says:

      That would supply a strong motive.

    • JerryC says:

      That explains how the Polynesians got to America, but not how American genes got back to the Marquesas.

      • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

        They stayed for a couple of decades, as pampered alien pets..
        We have no idea how many canoes sailed into the vast blue, ran out of water, got swamped in storms, and sank. I think the process was less directed and more like milkweed scattering seeds to the wind. Most never germinate. The return (from Chile to Nuku Hiva) was directed. The outcasts would be welcome if they returned with new crops, like sweet potatoes. Of course, I’m just making this up. Except sweet potatoes evolved in the Americas and occurred in Polynesia before Western contact.

        • dearieme says:

          “I think the process was less directed and more like milkweed scattering seeds to the wind”: then read Irwin.

  19. Garvan says:

    If the Polynesians were following the migration of sea turtles to find small islands in the pacific (as proposed by some) then they could have followed leatherback to the American coast.

    When two people’s meet for the first time, everything they have is for barter, as they try to discover comparative values of items. Glass beads for gold. Or perhaps iron for gold in this case.

    • John Massey says:

      “Or perhaps iron for gold in this case.” Do you think that’s likely?

    • dearieme says:

      That’s like the Viking sailing instructions for Norway to Iceland in the Spring. Sail west along a line of latitude until you meet the whales swimming north. Turn and follow them.

      The point is that the whales tended to swim above the MidAtlantic Ridge.

      I don’t know where I learnt that.

    • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

      “When two people’s meet for the first time, everything they have is for barter”
      Also, men look at men and wonder “can we take them””. Men look at women and women look at men and wonder “what are they like in bed?”

  20. mark says:

    Sam Harris has interviewed Robert Plomin:

  21. Dave Ramesses II says:

    News out this week that there are some stone tools circa 30k years old found in the Americas. This is consistent with the idea that Andaman-like negritos befolked the Americas before Clovis and other paleo Indians, as the archeogenetic finds in Brazil suggest.

    Can anyone say why these negritos didn’t slaughter all the megafauna, or at least coevolve with mega fauna and leave mega fauna more resistant to the Siberian waves of super-hunters? As soon as paleo Indians show up, the mega fauna are gone from the record. I’ve seen footage of African pygmies killing an elephant, so I would think eventually the Andaman-like blokes would be up to taking on a woolly rhinoceros.

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