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How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory

Over the past few weeks, new scientific discoveries have rekindled the debate over the Bering Strait Theory. Two of the discoveries were covered recently in Indian Country Today. The first “More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory,” dealt with the growing problem of “science by press release,” as scientific studies hype their conclusions to the point that they are misleading; and the second, “DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory,” discussed how politics can influence science, and the negative effects these politically-based scientific results can have on Native peoples.

RELATED:  More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory

RELATED: DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory

It is generally assumed that the Bering Strait Theory has almost universal acceptance from scientists. So, for example, the New York Times, in an article on March 12, “Pause Is Seen in a Continent’s Peopling” stated unequivocally that “The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago,” with the new wrinkle that maybe on their way from Asia Indian ancestors laid over in the Bering Strait region (Beringia) for thousands of years before traveling on to the Americas.

Therefore it is usually presumed that the primary critics of the theory must be anti-science, like the “creationists” who argue against evolution, or New Age pseudo-scientific conspiracy theorists. Thus in 1995, when the late Sioux philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. published Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact and challenged the Bering Strait Theory, he was savagely attacked by many scientists who lumped him in with those fringe groups.

The vitriol that poured from some of the harshest critics, such as John Whittaker, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, who referred to Deloria’s book as “a wretched piece of Native American creationist claptrap,” seemed excessive. The critics also demonstrated that they clearly did not comprehend Deloria’s argument. Red Earth, White Lies, embroidered by Deloria’s wry sense of humor and rambling musings, shows he was not anti-science, but rather anti-scientist. In particular, he was against those scientists who held narrow views of the world, who had no respect for other people’s traditions, who fostered a cult of superiority either for themselves or for their society, and who were afraid to search for the truth unless it already conformed with established opinion.

Deloria also argued that science, when studying people, was not neutral. In his view, some scientific theories harbored social and political agendas that were used to deprive Indians and other minorities of their rights. Many of the assumptions that underlay certain scientific principles were based on obsolete religious or social views, and he urged science to shed these dubious relics. The issue for Deloria was not science vs. religion (or tradition), it was good science vs. bad science, and in his view, the Bering Strait Theory was bad science.

Nor was Deloria alone in this opinion. Since it was first proposed in the late 16th century, and especially in its most recent incarnations in the late 19th and the 20th centuries, the most vociferous critics of the Bering Strait Theory have been scientists. Even among archaeologists and physical anthropologists, generally the most dogmatic proponents of this theory, it has always been extremely factious. And the abuse they would heap upon each other was no less acidic than that they spewed on outsiders.

In 1892, when the geologist George Frederick Wright published his massive study, Man and the Glacial Period, which challenged some of the tenets of the Bering Strait Theory as it was then formulated, he was attacked, as David J. Meltzer pointed out in First Peoples in a New World, “with a barrage of vicious reviews which were unprecedented in number and savagery.” One critic of the book, William John McGee, the head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, “was especially bloodthirsty, labeling Wright’s work absurdly fallacious, unscientific, and an ‘offense to the nostrils,’ then dismissing him as ‘a betinseled charlatan whose potions are poison. Would that science might be well rid of such harpies.’”

To understand just one of the many scientific criticisms of the Bering Strait Theory, we go halfway around the world to the continental mass known as the Sahul, which includes Australia, New Guinea and surrounding islands. Like the Americas, it had long been assumed by archaeologists that the Indigenous Peoples who lived in that region had migrated there from Asia just a few thousand years ago. It then came as a massive shock to those same archaeologists when in 1968, near Lake Mungo in Southeastern Australia, the geologist Jim Bowler discovered the remains of a cremated woman who was subsequently radiocarbon-dated to be between 25,000 and 32,000 years old. Lake Mungo Woman, as she came to be known, was repatriated to the Aboriginal community in 1992.

Yet this discovery had already been anticipated by other scientists, for example, the linguists. The Sahul is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, home to more than 1,000 languages, about one-fifth of the world’s total. The linguists had already predicted that the “time depth” required to achieve this type of linguistic diversity was clearly not in the thousands of years, but in the tens of thousands of years. Subsequent archaeological finds have now pushed back the date of human occupation of Australia to a minimum of 45,000 years ago and possibly 60,000 years ago.

The only area in the world that has a comparable level of linguistic diversity as the Sahul is the Americas, and in certain very important respects, the Americas were even more diverse. Since the very first period of contact between Europeans and Indians, observers had marveled at how many different languages and cultures were to be found. Thomas Jefferson, among the leading scientists of his day, wrote in 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

Imperfect as is our knowledge of the tongues spoken in America, it suffices to discover the following remarkable fact. Arranging them under the radical ones to which they may be palpably traced, and doing the same by those of the red men of Asia, there will be found probably twenty in America, for one in Asia, of those radical languages, so called because, if they were ever the same, they have lost all resemblance to one another.

Today, linguists call Jefferson’s “radical languages,” language families or stocks, each made up of numerous languages and dialects. As Jefferson saw it, this diversity clearly pointed to the great age of American Indians; “A separation into dialects may be the work of a few ages only, but for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin, must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth.”

Based upon the linguistic evidence, Jefferson believed that “a greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia,” and led him to speculate that Asians may have been the descendants of early American Indian migrations from the Americas to Asia.

Exactly how diverse the American languages were became clearer in 1891, when the famed explorer and director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell, released the monumental work, Indian Linguistic Families North of Mexico. In his introduction, Powell explained that, “The North American Indian tribes, instead of speaking related dialects, originating in a single parent language, in reality speak many languages belonging to distinct families, which have no apparent unity of origin.” Powell grouped the American Indian languages in the U.S. and Canada into 58 language families (or stocks) that could not be shown to be related to one another.

Since Powell’s day his classification has been modified somewhat and attempts to link many of these language stocks together to create “super stocks” have met with mixed success. Although what constitutes a family, stock or super stock is a matter of continuing debate among linguists, today it is generally accepted that there are 150 different language stocks in the Americas. To give some perspective to this diversity, there are more language stocks in the Americas than in the rest of the world combined.

One of the 150 New World language stocks, Eskimo-Aleut, also spans the Arctic and so has Asian and European relatives. Another language super stock, Na-Dené, composed of the language stocks Athabaskan, Tlingit and Eyak, and located in Alaska and the northwest coast (but also in the southwestern U.S.), is also believed to have relatives in Asia, possibly the Yeneisian languages of central Siberia.

It has long been suggested, and the issue is not particularly controversial, that peoples speaking Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené moved back and forth between Asia and the Americas. A new study published on March 12 in the journal PLoS, “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia,” found that Na-Dené is not descended from Yeneisian (as the Bering Strait Theory would infer) but the other way around, that there was a “back-migration into central Asia than a migration from central or western Asia to North America.” (As an aside, the study, true to “science by press release” fashion, argues that this supports the “Beringian Standstill” hypothesis–that Indians paused in Beringia for thousands of years before colonizing the New World–but the study only examined the Na-Dené language stock, whose speakers still live in the Alaskan part of Beringia to this very day, and so it would seem the study would just as easily support the Na-Dené view that they have been there since time immemorial.)

Other than Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené, linguists have yet to find any connection with any language stocks of the Americas and those of Asia. Along with the tremendous hemispheric diversity, this created serious doubts about the dates proposed by archaeologists and physical anthropologists for Indian origins. At the beginning of the 20th century it was held to be at most 10,000 years and generally only 5,000 years. In 1916, Edward Sapir, among the most important and influential linguists in history, countered the prevailing archaeological view; “ten thousand years, however, seems a hopelessly inadequate span of time for the development from a homogeneous origin of such linguistic differentiation as is actually found in America.” Instead he argued that, “the best piece of evidence of great antiquity of man in America is linguistic diversification rather than archaeological.”

One of America’s greatest scientists, Franz Boas, generally considered to be the father of modern anthropology and an important linguist in his own right, in his classic study, Race, Language, and Culture, published in 1940, wrote that not only were American Indian languages “so different among themselves that it seems doubtful whether the period of 10,000 years is sufficient for their differentiation,” but that the evidence of extremely ancient Indians would some day be found, and that, “all we can say, therefore, is that the search for early remains must continue.” Indeed, Boas was among the first to propose, based on the evidence from an expedition that he led to the Bering Strait region in 1897, the “back migration” from the Americas to Asia.

Linguists were not the only ones who recognized the importance of the linguistic evidence. The great British paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey firmly believed that the linguistic evidence showed that Indians were likely to be many tens of thousands of years old and possibly much older, and shortly before his death in 1972 he began to sponsor fieldwork in the Americas in the hopes of proving this. But most American archaeologists and physical anthropologists, where the dogmatism of the Bering Strait Theory is most pronounced, dismissed or ignored the linguistic evidence, leading people and the mainstream press to assume that linguists were silent on this subject, even though the reverse was true.

Starting in 1987, the tensions between the proponents of the Bering Strait Theory and linguists turned into open warfare as archaeologists and geneticists used a highly disputed (and now completely discredited) theory by the linguist Joseph Greenberg to claim that the linguistic evidence now (after hundreds of years of refuting it) showed that Indians migrated from Asia to the New World around 15,000 years ago. The dispute led to a torrent of scientific papers by the world’s most prominent linguists denouncing the use of “non-science” and faulty data to back the Bering Strait Theory. The archaeologists and geneticists largely ignored the objections, forcing a group of linguists–led by Lyle Campbell, author of the standard work in that field, American Indian Languages: the Historical Linguistics of Native America, and Ives Goddard, curator at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution and the linguistic and technical editor of the massive Handbook of North American Indians–to write to the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2004 and condemn the widespread use of pseudo-scientific linguistic “evidence” in genetic studies about Indian origins.

The dispute also led the influential linguist, Johanna Nichols, to publish “Linguistic Diversity and the First Settlement of the New World,” in the journal Language in 1990. In her introduction, she first made two important scientific points: the diversity of the languages of the New World is due to “the operation of regular principles of linguistic geography;” and that the linguistic and archaeological evidence from the Sahul clearly contradicted the attempts to assign early dates for the Bering Strait migration, since the assignment of early dates in the New World would create a scientific anomaly; but such a discrepancy–one of at least an order of magnitude–must be assumed if we adhere to the Clovis [15,000 years ago] or received chronology [20,000 years ago] for the settlement of the New World.”

Nichols’ paper used six independent linguistic methods for calculating American Indian antiquity and she determined that it would have taken a minimum of 50,000 years for all of the American Indian languages to have evolved from one language, or 35,000 years if migrants had come in multiple waves. She concluded that, “The unmistakable testimony of the linguistic evidence is that the New World has been inhabited nearly as long as Australia or New Guinea.”

The advocates of the Bering Strait Theory have countered that the linguistic evidence, strong as it may be, is not “proof” that Indians have inhabited the Americas for more than 15,000 years, and granted, it is not proof, it is evidence. The demand by the proponents of the Bering Strait Theory for “indisputable proof” is actually a curious but important aspect of that theory. Science is only rarely able to prove things with absolute certainty, and it normally confines itself to mathematical probability. As one scientist put it, “proof is not a currency of science,” and virtually all widely accepted scientific theories are based upon the preponderance of the evidence, not proof. This strident demand for “proof” while ignoring the evidence is abnormal in science and reflects the fact that originally the Bering Strait Theory was not a scientific theory at all, but a dogma. And this dogmatic stance, along with the vicious nature of the debate surrounding it, has long been a sore point for many scientists, not just for Indians.

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How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory

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