I'll split this question into two parts.

Pre-Columbus: There's some evidence that Polynesians traveled back and forth between Oceania and South America before the arrival of Europeans. The sweet potato was introduced to Polynesia from South America around 700 CE, though it's not clear if it was imported, or if it somehow floated across the ocean. Other clues comes from linguistics and genetics.

Is there any evidence that the Inca Empire knew about the Polynesians? Wikipedia implies that the hypothetical contact happened hundreds of years before Inca times. There likely weren't any Polynesian explorers in South America during the colonial period. Still, the Incas had a strong oral tradition, so they might have known.

Post-Columbus: The Inca Empire survived until 1572, though it was only a rump state after the 1530s. This means that the Inca Empire was still around when the Europeans reached Polynesia (see this and this). Did any information about the Incas bleed into Polynesia, or vice versa? Obviously, modern Polynesians and Andeans are aware of each other, so I'll set the question's end date at 1572.


Thor Heyerdahl proved it was possible with the Kon-tiki raft to sail from Polynesia to South America. Later he did a similar experiment to see if Egyptians could have crossed the Atlantic with boats build out of papyrus.

More precisely, he didn't really proof it was possible: he proved it was not impossible. That doesn't want say it was likely, and it certainly doesn't mean there was regular traffic between those destinations.

Thor had the advantage of knowing it was possible. He knew South America existed. He knew the exact distance. He had the best and accurate weather forecasts. He had a radio on board, in case of trouble. He had modern life rafts and the knowledge help would be on the way, if need be.

Those advantages the Polynesians didn't have. For them is was a highly dangerous journey into the unknown.

That's why I think it may very well have happened, but on an incidental basis. I doubt very much if Polynesians and Incas knew of each other's existence, it certainly wasn't common knowledge preserved in legends. If more or less regular traffic existed, that would have been mentioned.

I think - but this is purely my own opinion - that if it happened, it was a one way trip. Sailing with rafts is far too dangerous to make a return voyage. All of Heyerdahl's rafts were after their voyages no longer in a condition to even consider sailing back.

  • Some of the distances we know that Polynesians had to travel - to get to Easter Island or Hawaii, for example - make travel to South America seem to be at least in the realm of consideration. Given the relatively late arrival of humans to Easter Island, it's likely that if they didn't make it, it's just because they hadn't had time to do so yet. – tbrookside Jan 16 at 1:09
  • I'm personally inclined to think it quite possible that Easter Islanders (Rapa Nui) were in occasional trade contact with both the rest of Greater Polynesia and with the mainland ... until they cut down the last of their trees. After that, its possible other Polynesians visited to trade occasionally, then turned around and went home, but highly unlikely any of them bothered to sail the further 2,500km to South America. – T.E.D. Jan 16 at 17:07
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    The South Americans on the other hand didn't have the Polynesians' nautical skills or outlook, and I have trouble believing any of them ever visited Polynesia without the help of experienced Polynesian sailors. – T.E.D. Jan 16 at 17:09
  • Thor Heyerdahl's main point was that every island suitable for humans in the pacific was inhabitated. He interpreted this to mean that the Polynesians must have had advanced nautical skills to have found all of these places. – John Dee Jan 18 at 20:07

This is unproven. There are several major claims of possible prehistoric contact between Polynesians and the Americas.

The Polynesian culture was the more maritime one. It reached as far as Easter Island with certainty, and why would it have not gone farther? The Inca did have seaworthy rafts but only for coasting. If Topa Inca Yupanqui's sea voyage truly occurred, and somehow reached Easter Island, then the answer is yes.

  • Didn't the voyages of Magellan and others across the Pacific discover various island groups? Are you claiming that all Pacific islands discovered before 1572 were not Polynesian? – MAGolding Jan 15 at 19:10
  • Thanks @MAGolding, that wasn't my intention so I removed the claim. – Aaron Brick Jan 15 at 19:13
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    Upvoted the answer, but I'd like to clarify that having craft suitable for coastal trading is a completely different world than having ocean-going sailing craft and the skills to navigate in the open ocean. – T.E.D. Jan 16 at 17:17

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