The idea that American Indians are a unity, or one people, is a Western concept. Terms such as American Indian, Native American, Amerind, are Western terms. The people who have inhabited the Americas never understood themselves in this way, but rather referred to themselves by their nation, whether it be Dené or Hnahñu, and they maintained separate identities with very different cultures and languages. Even genetically they are different from one another, although unfortunately most genetic studies tend to lump them all together, so these differences are obscured. Yet the Western perspective of simplifying the vast indigenous variety of this hemisphere is certain to lead to an oversimplification over how this hemisphere was occupied.
With all the advancements in science, we still know very little about what was happening on this planet 5,000 years ago, much less 15,000 or 50,000 years ago. Every day new discoveries add to our knowledge of the past, and yet it seems that more mysteries surface than do answers.
It was presumed, up until very recently, that modern humans were less than 40,000 years old. This presumption was once a driving force in limiting the age of Indians in the Americas, since it was assumed they could not be older than the peoples of Europe or Africa, and it would take a long time to migrate to the New World. It is now known that modern humans are at least 200,000 years old, and likely much older.
Moreover, there was in the past more than one kind of human. The recent discovery of the Denisovan hominin, along with the Neanderthals and a number of other, unclassified remains, such as Grimaldi Man and Chancelade Man, indicate a wide variety of ancient humans existed contemporaneously. The significance of this has yet to be understood.
There have been enormous environmental changes over the past 100,000 years, so pronounced that it is difficult to comprehend their effects on humans and other living things. The last ice age, known in North America as the Wisconsinan Glaciation, began approximately 85,000 years ago and ended about 11,000 years ago. It reached its peak extent of ice about 20,000 years ago. It was not a smooth transition, and during this time there were abrupt climate changes. Approximately 14,000 years ago there was a major climatic event, known as the Older Dryas, in which the Northern Hemisphere cooled significantly. A short period of warming then occurred, followed by the Younger Dryas, another period of cooling also known as “the big freeze,” which began approximately 12,000 years ago and lasted about 1,000 years.
Many volcanic events, such as the Lake Toba super-eruption in the Indonesian island of Sumatra approximately 70,000 years ago, had global consequences and may have triggered mass human migrations.
The archaeological record of ancient Indians in the Americas is sparse, but that does not mean that Indians were not here in the deep past. The “culture history” of ancient humans is little understood, and our perspectives on how they lived, sustained themselves, and organized their societies is largely based upon old prejudices and discredited theories of social evolution. What little we do know, it does appear that the culture history of ancient Americans is different from the ancient peoples of Europe or Asia.
Paleoindians lived in the Americas for thousands of years and did not leave many traces of their settlements because they lived relatively close to nature. This is evident in the oldest accepted archaeological site, Monte Verde in Chile. The preservation and discovery of the site was extremely fortuitous. It was situated near a creek that at onetime overflowed and subsumed the camp, becoming a bog. The bog inhibited the decay of the organic matter in the settlement so that the wooden posts, clothing, hearths, bones, and even a chunk of meat were preserved. Otherwise an open-air camp of this type, once abandoned, would have disappeared thousands of years ago, a victim of the elements.
One certain effect of climate change is that the sea levels have risen more than 300 feet since the glacial maximum, inundating hundreds of thousands of square miles of coastlands about 12,000 years ago. It should be noted that today, 80% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the oceans and would be forced to move if the seas rise another 300 feet. Whether or not the majority of Paleoindians were living along the coasts is now almost impossible to discover. Yet in an intriguing find in 1970, the crew of a scallop trawler 60 miles off the Virginia coast hauled a mastodon tusk onto its deck along with an eight-inch stone blade. The tusk was radiocarbon dated to be 22,760 years old.
In 2016, after a thirty-year battle, the underwater site, Page-Ladson in Florida, was finally accepted to be 14,550 years old, making it the oldest in North America. But other sites in North America remain controversial because of their possible ancient dates. The most compelling of these sites is Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, which points to Paleoindian habitation as early as 19,000 years ago. Meadowcroft has received unyielding criticism from Clovis die-hards such as C. Vance Haynes, professor emeritus of archeology at the University of Arizona, who claim the early radiocarbon dates are the results of contamination (now refuted), but otherwise have been unable to challenge the validity of the site.
New excavations at Buttermilk Creek in central Texas indicate the site may be 15,500 years old, and the large collection of tools gives this site substantial weight. There are also a large number of sites in which the remains of extinct animals have been found that show signs of having been butchered by Indians. For example, at La Sena in Nebraska, mammoth bones that appear to have been fractured by humans were radiocarbon dated at 22,000 years ago.
By contrast to the stubbornness found in most North American archeologists, in Central and South America, the acceptance of ancient, pre-Clovis sites is matter of fact. For example, the Monte Verde site in Chile has more than one level. The upper level, MV-II, is universally accepted as having human occupation reliably dated to 14,800 years ago. A lower level, MV-I has what appear to be hearths, stone tools and wood artifacts. While North American archaeologists have been hesitant to even discuss this level, Mario Pino Quivera, a geologist with the Universidad Austral de Chile, who co-excavated the Monte Verde site, is emphatic about the burnt wood that he believes comes from an ancient hearth. “There is no doubt these are real human artifacts,” and “there is no doubt to its age–its 33,000 years old.”
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 2013, by a team led by Richard Fariña of the University of Uruguay, proposed that a site near Sauce, Uruguay, showed evidence of giant ground sloths having been butchered by humans, with the sliced bones found along with stone scrapers. The fact that the site and bones were radiocarbon dated to be more than 30,000 years old drew little controversy in South America.
Yet in North America, these ancient dates are met with scoffing disbelief. For example, the Pedro Furada site in Northeastern Brazil, a rock shelter with what are believed to be hearths and associated stone tools, has been radiocarbon dated to be more than 22,000 years old. As Alex Bellos of the Guardian explained in 2000, the Pedro Furada site “has divided the academic community into two sides–roughly between US archaeologists, who refuse to accept it, and South Americans and Europeans, who do.”
Many important sites in Latin America have never had their findings published in English, and so are fairly unknown to North American archaeologists. For example, the Rancho La Ampola site near El Cedral in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, has extensive documentation, so much so that a pamphlet of inter- disciplinary papers, entitled Rancho “La Amapola”, Cedral: Un sitio arqueológico-paleontológico pleistocénico-holocénico con restos de actividad humana, published by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History in 2012, states that the stone tools, worked animal bones, and the hearths at the site “conclusively proves the presence of man in Mexico more than 31,000 years ago.”
The schism between North American and Latin American archeologists is long- standing and dates back to Aleš Hrdlička’s trips to Latin America in the early 20th century, where he proceeded to debunk the research of a number of Central and South American archaeologists. It begs the question; if Monte Verde had been principally excavated by a South American archaeologist, rather than Tom Dillehay, would the site have been accepted.
Yet as the North American archaeologists wait to uncover “indisputable proof,” a smoking gun that may some day overturn the current dogma, the evidence continues to accumulate that Indians have been in this hemisphere far longer than 15,000 years.
The linguistic evidence has always been clear. Indians are extremely ancient, so ancient, that, with the possible exception of the Athabaskans, there is no linguistic connection between modern Indians and modern Asians.
The genetic record is more complex and the results of recent studies are difficult to evaluate. It is essential, when studying Indians, to genetically map individual nations, given how different they are from each other. Sadly, the genetic evidence is hamstrung by the pseudoscientific classifications of Joseph Greenburg that is used in most genetic studies. Greenburg attempted to eliminate the diversity of Indian peoples and so lumped most of them into one group. This makes it much easier than examining the genetic makeup of 150 distinct peoples, but it has led to wildly divergent outcomes between similar genetic studies, often done in the same year.
Lumping so many different tribes into a single massive group makes it easy to create false relationships between Indians and Asians. The perceived unity of American Indians also creates a self- fulfilling data set, so therefore, haplotypes that are not believed to be originally American Indian, but are still found in some American Indians, are tossed out on the assumption they are the result of later European or African admixture. Add to this is that most geneticists are heavily predisposed to the Bering Strait Theory, sometimes leading to interpretations not supported by the data itself.
But in spite of the difficulty in evaluating the genetic studies because of these flaws, the genetic data is also clear, like the linguistic evidence, that Indians are very ancient, much more ancient than the Bering Strait Theory currently allows. So great are these ages–that Indians have been a genetically separate peoples for as much as 40,000 to 50,000 years–that the possibility exists of many migrations, back and forth between the Americas and Asia, between some Indian and Asian groups.
But not all Indians. There are those Indian nations that show only the most remote connection to Asian peoples, so remote that certain genes bear no resemblance whatsoever. Using HLA haplotypes to study some Central and South American Indian tribes, a study in 2006 led by A. Arnaiz-Villena from the University of Madrid, entitled “The Uniqueness of Amerindians according to HLA genes and the Peopling of the Americas,” found that “While other worldwide populations are genetically related following generally a smooth geographic gradient, Amerindians appear apart.” Indeed so apart from other world populations that the time depth needed for such change must have been very great.
If Meso and South American Indians come from Asia, they must have originated from a very different Asian people as those existing nowdays.
Two sites in the Americas, one 5,000 miles from the other, have been conclusively dated to be more than 14,500 years old. Yet even then the ice cap still posed a formidable barrier to migration. So while it is possible that Paleoindians first migrated from Asia 15,000 years ago, it is not probable. The evidence: genetic, linguistic, and archeological, paint a more diverse picture and a much earlier date.
It would appear that the past is more complex than the simplistic assumptions that currently hold sway. The idea of a straight-line migration from Africa through Asia through the Bering Strait to the New World is only one possibility out of many.
It is just as likely there were many migrations and back migrations, which may have changed the composition of each continent, Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, multiple times. History, as far back as records tell us, is replete with massive migrations, often through entire continents, so much so that for example, Indians are now only a tiny minority in this hemisphere.
Based on his expeditions to Beringia in the late 19th century, the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, proposed that Indians had migrated to the Americas before the last glacial maximum and when the ice age ended there was then a back- migration from the Americas into Asia. Large scale population movements like these would have led to intermixtures that show up today in genetic markers, but as to who came first, or later, or who moved where, or when, these genetic similarities cannot yet answer.
What happened in the ancient past, we do not know. But one thing we do know, the Bering Strait Theory is not a scientific theory, it is a myth. As a myth it has stifled our understanding of the past, not enhanced it. For more than a century it has been above criticism, upheld by dogmatism so ferocious that to challenge it was academic suicide.
As science moves forward, the myth is beginning to disappear. Finally, we may now be able to look at the past with open eyes.