Faunal Evidence for Transoceanic Diffusion Before 1492

Discuss the evidence for and against animals being transported across the oceans between hemispheres before 1492.

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Faunal Evidence for Transoceanic Diffusion Before 1492

Postby carlj » Fri Oct 08, 2010 2:39 pm

Archaeological evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Diffusion is quite compelling. If a plant, disease, or animal evolved in one environment and shows up in a similar environment across the vast stretches of oceans that separate the Old World and the Americas, we have to be able to rationally explain it. For many years much of geographical world has accepted the view that these various species were transported by the early European traders after Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. Now, given the amount of modern archaeological evidence showing species having been accessible and regularly used by early tropical population far across the oceans, from the site in which they originated and evolved, we have to, according to all good scientific processes, revisit our original theory and reorganize it to explain the anomalies. This article lays out the archaeological evidence that exists for animals having been moved from the Old World to the Americas as well as in the other direction, long before 1492. Eight animals have been found in early archeological digs. These animals originated on continents which are separated by the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean then prior to 1492, transferred to the Americas from the Old World or to the Old World from the Americas. The only rational explanation for these discoveries, knowing what we have learned about the transportation of plants, is that there was regular, repeated, and sustained interaction between the Old World and the Americas prior to 1492.

Alphitobius diaperinus or Lesser Meal Worm
This pest native to the Old World has been discovered in a similar mortuary context in the New World as well. It is commonly known as the ‘lesser meal worm.’ Panagiotakopulu reports finding it in the British Isles in a second-century C.E. burial and in Egypt with a mummy dating to 1350 B.C.E. In Peru, the same worm has been found in a 1240 C.E. mummy bundle.
This association of pests with burial practices in both hemispheres appears less startling when we recall the mortuary context of the discovery of tobacco and coca chemicals in Egyptian mummies dating from the second millennium B.C.E to the fifth century C.E . Also, the chemical residues of metabolized Cannabis sativa, an Old World plant, have been found in Peruvian corpses. It is not so surprising then, that a beetle and a worm from Eurasia should show up in graves in Peru. Humans traveling on boats provide the only plausible means by which the two areas, halfway around the world from each other, could have been so linked both biologically, chemically and, apparently, culturally.

Canis familiaris or Dog
The dog is commonly assumed to have been brought to the New World by early hunter-gatherers via Beringia, but there is very slim evidence for this. Mair’s round-up of data from Asia suggest that dog-in-the-company-of-humans in the Old World is not particularly ancient. The earliest domestication (or taming) of the dog for which we have archaeological evidence occurred in the Near East during the Natufian era only around 12,000 years ago. Dogs in the European Mesolithic period date on the order of 7000–4000 B.C.E. The earliest dog remains in China are around 4000 B.C.E. Moreover, the common hypothetical root words for dog in ancestral language groupings like Nostratic and Afro-Asiatic appear to date “closer to 6000 B.C.E than to 10,000 B.C.E” . Turner says a dog skull dated to 12,000 B.C.E was found in a cave in the Altai Mountains, but it was not associated with evidence for human presence in the area. These data mean that it is a stretch to imagine domesticated dogs being available in northeastern Asia to accompany the presumed earliest migrants to the New World via Bering Strait.
So where did American dogs come from? (Of course, they might have been independently domesticated in the Americas from wild canids, although evidence, even hints, of that are all but absent, cf. Turner 2002). Some dogs may have come from Japan and others, such as the edible-dog may have come from China . There is ample cultural evidence of the edible dogs in China and the edible dogs in the Americas being raised for and used in temple sacrificial rituals as well as being eaten .

Felis cattus or Domesticated Cats
At the Middle Preclassic archaeological site of Tlatilco, near Mexico City, excavations conducted over 30 years ago revealed the bones of the domestic cat. There is no actual evidence to suggest contamination of the archaeological remains by post-Castilian mixing of archaeological deposits for the faunal bones, although that was the claim of the archaeologist. This Middle Preclassic settlement and burial ground produced a single Felis domestica bone [as far as is reported all archaeological material from Tlatilco hitherto has been dated between ca. 800–400 B.C.E.] The single jaw bone came from level “F”, the sixth deepest sub-stratum (of nine) within the stratum III or deepest master stratum. The jawbone was shown to us by Dr. Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales of Laboratorio de Arqueozoología, Instituto Nacional de Anthropología e Historía although surface and intermediate strata, and a few deeper sub-strata, show the presence of horse, cattle, and goat bones. Bones of the domestic cat have appeared in five archaeological sites in Mexico. In two of them, at Tlatilco and Cuanalán, they were found in bottle-shaped pits. Three other sites with cat bones were of Colonial Spanish age. Ticul Álvarez and Aurelio Ocaña suppose that the cat bones should be explained by either stating that the bottle-shaped pits were used after the Conquest when European cats had been introduced, or that the bones were introduced in the deposit “by accident,” or by redepositioning of post-Conquest remains due to churning of the deposit by digging/tunneling rodents. Neither suggestion is entirely realistic in the case of the bell-shaped pits, considering the relatively constricted top opening to such depressions through which rodents could have intruded. The question of whether the bones are modern or not could be resolved, of course, by geochronometric dating for which we tried to obtain funding and were told that it was not possible. We continue searching for funding.

Gallus gallus or Chicken
Conventional wisdom among many zoologists holds that chickens were absent in the New World until introduced by the Spaniards. If that had been the case, the chickens in the hands of Amerindians after the Conquest ought to have been strictly of the Mediterranean type, but they were not. Many of them looked like Chinese or Malay chickens, very different feather color, body shape, feather distribution, color of eggs, and behavior from the Mediterranean variety of chicken present in Europe. Evidence from physical characteristics of fowls, documentary history, ethnography, the uses to which the fowls were put, and the distribution of vernacular names combine to establish that the reputed introduction of the chicken by the Spaniards is contrary to the facts. Instead, multiple introductions of fowls across the oceans, in addition to the later Spanish importation, are indicated.
Latcham observed that in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, at least three indigenous domesticated varieties or species were known. The Spanish terms for ‘cock,’ or ‘chicken,’ had not been adopted for those birds by the Amerindians “because they have their own names.” Their three kinds were definitely present before the Spanish Conquest and are still represented among the fowls kept by the Araucanian Indians of Chile. Some lay blue or olive-green eggs, are tailless, and have tufts of feathers in the form of a ball at the sides of their heads, as do fowls in China, which also lay blue eggs. Johannessen also examined chickens in Chile and found fowl similar to those just described. Finsterbusch agreed that these were pre-Columbian chickens. Castello went so far as to identify four types (varieties) of Chilean chickens which differed from the common European fowl but showed Asiatic features. Blue-egg layers are distributed from Chile to Ecuador and Mexico, he reported.
Archaeological specimens of chicken bones in the Americas have been reported. However, until recently, none of the few bones tested had been positively dated to before the time of Columbus. There is one Maya site where the archaeologists attribute Gallus gallus to the Classic era, 200 B.C.E and 1000 C.E. Alvarez and Ocana have reported seven other archaeological sites in Mexico from which Gallus remains have been reported. Other sites exist where chicken bones have been excavated, but reliable dating of those bone remains has not been done. Investigative evidence from culturally significant presence and use of the chicken has reinforced the finding of dated bones in Mayan sites in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Chicken bones have been recently discovered, dated and the DNA identified in Chile and Storey reports that the chicken bones appear to come from Polynesia on the basis of their DNA analysis.

Meleagris gallopavo or Turkey
It is now clear that that quintessentially American fowl, the turkey, was being kept in Europe in the late Medieval Period. In 1940, an observer claimed that an American turkey could be seen in a painted frieze at Schleswig Cathedral, which had been built about 1280 C.E. That claim was rebutted by Stresemann (referring to Rieth) who showed that the mural had been restored in the1800s and 1900s; hence the rendering of the turkey as it existed in 1940 could have depended on knowledge acquired after Columbus. , Nevertheless, findings since that time have restored the possibility of a pre-Columbian origin for the Schleswig representation. Hungarian archaeologists found bones of a turkey in the 14th-century royal castle at Buda. Turkey bones have also been excavated from a carefully dated 14th-century-site in Switzerland. Other Hungarian sites of the 10th to 13th centuries have yielded signet rings engraved with images of the turkey that show the fleshy pendant growth on the turkey’s neck. Furthermore, a letter written in 1490 by Hungarian King Matthias, who died later that year, requested through an envoy that the Duke of Milan send him turkeys (“galine de Indie”). The king wanted to acclimatize the bird in Hungary. He also asked that a man who knew how to care for turkeys be sent with the birds. Obviously, the fowl was in Europe before Columbus’ first voyage.

Mya arenaria or clam
Petersen and his team report that shells of this live clam have been discovered off the Danish coast. Until now the view had been that it was distributed only in the Americas. A radiocarbon date in the 13th century has been obtained for a specimen of shell that leaves only “very slight probability” of its dating after Columbus. Since the transfer had to have involved human voyaging (presumably involving the clam only inadvertently), it “could have been transferred from North America to Europe by the Norse.”

Rattus rattus or the rat
Recent studies of the spread of rats in the Pacific basin (Holdaway 1996; Matisoo-Smith et al. 1998; Matisoo-Smith and Robins 2004) have taken advantage of the obvious fact that the distribution of rats must be explained as a result of human voyaging, since rats do not swim at sea. , , Thus when we find that rat bones were excavated over 30 years ago from a grave at Tlatilco, a site west of the Mexico City that shows indications of Asian cultural influence, the explanation for their presence might come from a transpacific vessel on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The data is similar to that of the information on the cat and the chicken at Tlatilco. Polynesians allowed rats on their ocean-going crafts and may have used them to fight scurvy.

Rhyzopertha dominica or South American Lesser Grain Borer
Some authors had apparently supposed this insect to be from South America. Kislev and Panagiotakopulu have stated that it came from India, without any supporting information (so said also by Potter, see below). If from the Old World, transoceanic transport in antiquity cannot be claimed, but if from South America, then an explanation is called for to account for its presence in Old World archaeological sites. Found at the Minoan site of Akrotiri on the Island of Thera as well as in a Roman site in Egypt. While commonly referred to as the ‘South American lesser grain borer,’ Panagiotakopulu lists the origin (in the table on page 9) as “India.” Also known from Kahun in Egypt (1900–1800 BCE), and in a vessel from Tut’ankhamun’s tomb of 1345 BCE. It is a usual pest on grain in warmer countries, and is also recorded from a wide variety of crops, such as wheat, barley, millet, rice, maize, and sorghum as well as other products. It was originally described from South America, but may have originated in India (cited from Kislev). R. dominica, the lesser grain borer, infests stored cereals. It was originally described from South America but now is cosmopolitan.

Stegobium paniceum or Drugstore Beetle
The beetle species, Stegobium paniceum, a pest usually found in dried, stored vegetable matter, is documented in both Egyptian and Peruvian burials. Greater incidence and earlier recognition of the species in the Old World favors that hemisphere as the place of origin. In Peru, S. paniceum was found with mummies dated at least to the 13th century CE. Burials in Egypt as early as 3400 BCE have revealed this same ‘drugstore,’ or ‘biscuit,’ beetle. It was also present in both Roman and Bronze Age England.

Among the animals that have found their way across the oceans to or from the Americas, many are related to the ship business. They are animals that were brought on board to help control the pest population (cats), were the pests themselves (rats), or were pest in the food stores of the sailors (beetles). It is unlikely that any of these animals would have gained a real foothold in the transplanted location without repeated and regular contact between the Old World and the Americas. Given the number of animals plants and diseases that now have been discovered by Sorenson and Johannessen (2009) in Pre-Columbian archeological sites we can only conclude that there was sustained and regular transoceanic trade between the continents long prior to 1492.


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Sorenson, John L and Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biolagical Exchanges Before 1492. New York: iUniverse. p. 434.

Mair, Victor H. 1998. “Canine conundrums: Eurasian dog ancestor myths in historical and ethnic perspective,” Sino-Platonic Papers 87. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Ibid. 22-3.

Turner, Christy G., II. 2002. “Teeth, needles, dogs, and Siberia: bioarchaeological evidence for the colonization of the New World,” Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences 27: 123–58. p. 144. Ibid. pp. 144-145.

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Professor Emeritus Carl L. Johannessen
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