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sweet potato once again (was: Re: Ad Yurii Gloriam (and Adios Yuri)

Peter van Rossum (pmv100@psu.edu) wrote on 1997/01/21:
> Yuri wrote:

> >Peter,
> >
> >I don't quite get your point here.
> >
> >If the purpose of your article was to point out that Rensch may have
> >misinterpreted Yen in some way, you may perhaps have a point, although
> >seeing that that presentation was made at a symposium where Yen was
> >present may cast some doubt on this.
> >
> >If the purpose of your article is to suggest that the Spanish brought the
> >word for sweet potato to America where the sweet potato is native, I
> >doubt it very much.
> >Yuri.
> Actually you did understand the point that I was making.  Yes the claim
> has been made that the Polynesian word Kumara may be of Polynesian, not
> South American, origin.  It has then been suggested that this may have
> been introduced into South America by the Spaniards.


So your current position is that sweet potato diffused to Polynesia from
S. America by itself, and then its name was brought to America by the

Highly doubtful. Let's see what evidence you try to adduce in support of 

> I agree that at first it seems odd to think that a Polynesian word for
> sweet potato would be accepted in the original homeland of the plant.
> However, it also seems strange that a South American word for sweet potato
> would be much more widespread in Polynesia than in South America. 

Not at all. The simple explanation is that sweet potato played a very
important role in the agricultural economy of Polynesians, but not in that
of S. Americans. Why? Any number of reasons could be given here, but the
obvious one is that sw. potato proved to be especially suitable for
Polynesian soils and climates. 

> From
> the little research I did it appears that the South American words similar
> to kumara have a very restricted range of use in South America, most native
> groups do not use this word for sweet potato.  In contrast the Polynesia
> word Kumara (or words of clear derivation) has a pretty wide range of use
> in Polynesia.

And the explanation for this is that the tribes for whom sw. potato was 
important were not numerous to start with. Yet they may have been good 
sailors and helped to diffuse it across the ocean.

> Additionally there is apparently no early record of the words use in South
> America.  That doesn't prove it wasn't used, only that apparently no one
> recorded it.


> My readings from Yen 1974, Heiser 1990, and Sauer 1993 all claim that
> this is still under dispute.  Contra this position is Rensch but he
> does not explain why he is sure that its a South American word.  On this
> topic Rensch only cites Yen 1974, but as I've shown Yen was very far
> from certain of the words place of origin. Therefore, Rensch's claim is
> unsupported by what he cites in his paper, if there is better research
> he should have cited such.  Since he did not cite any further research
> I can only conclude that he is not aware of any, so we're still stuck
> with Yen's 1974 analysis (and Yen ain't no linguist).

The problem with your theory is that it is unnecessarily complicated. 
Occam's Razor... 

Since the tribes using the word _kumara_ were no longer coastal tribes in
post-Conquest times (they were probably at some point in time driven away
from their ancestral coastal habitations), this presents an additional

But here is the real argument against your suggestion. Basically, the very
idea of your "auto-diffusion" of sweet potato across the ocean is
extremely problematic. Especially in light of the following: 


AMERICAS, Smithsonian, 1995

[begin quote]
The spread of the sweet potato into Oceania from S. America with its
name (probably in two different movements, with two versions of the
name) is perhaps the most widely accepted case of pre-Columbian
diffusion beyond continental limits. It is particularly interesting
because the Polynesian god of the sweet potato is *Lono, who is
supposed to have brought it in his belt, the Rainbow. The double-
headed rainbow serpent appears as the belt of the principal Moche
deity on the north coast of Peru, and parallels with myths of *Lono
are widespread in Amazonia. Tying together mythological evidence
with the botanical evidence is largely work for the future, but it
may throw considerable light on the contexts in which such
borrowings occurred. (p. 117)

[end quote]

So you see, Peter, the case for human-assisted trans-Pacific diffusion in
pre-Columbian times, already very strong, is further strengthened by the
obvious links in mythology. Your theory fades away rather quickly when we
see that the Spanish could never have brought mythological connections
from Polynesia to America. 

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky          | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
------------------------| is always Paradise: so say the most ancient 
Toronto ... the Earth   | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
    --- my webpage: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/3988 ---