THE ORIGIN QUESTION
When I first began my research into American Indian history and culture over two decades ago, the question of origin was a non-issue. Everyone knew they crossed the Bering Land Bridge 12,000 years ago and spread across two eagerly awaiting continents. Little did I know that, while the rest of us were taking this for granted, a war was raging among academics. Not a new war, but a long and lingering one that goes back several centuries.
The rudiments of the Bering Straight theory began as early as the sixteenth century, but was refuted by America’s first archaeologist, Thomas Jefferson. Writing in 1785 and using the language differentiation of our indigenous residents, Jefferson reasoned that “…for two dialects to recede from one another til 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.”
In 1892, geologist George Frederick Wright again challenged the theory in his study Man and the Glacial Period. He was soundly redressed by ethnologist William John McGee who called Wright’s work “absurdly fallacious, unscientific, and an offense to the nostrils.”
My introduction to the battle came with my reading of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Deloria, one of the most prolific Native American writers and philosophers of our time, charges that the theory is not science, but dogma perpetrated by those more interested in protecting the theorists than advancing science. Obviously, he was roundly challenged and shuffled off as a fringe group member. The question then becomes, is the theory based on science, or is it dogma?
As I mentioned earlier, the theory has been around for centuries, but what locked it in was the pronouncement in 1927 by Alex Hrdlicka that it “…was the only logical explanation.” Hrdlicka was the curator of the Smithsonian Physical Anthropology Department and the foremost authority on Neanderthals. His status and fame made his declaration effectively law. How powerful was his edict? Dr. Thomas Lee of the National Museum of Canada from 1951-1955, discovered artifacts dated to 30,000 years ago. Instead of cheering, the scientific community blacklisted him for more than ten years.
When, in 1975, Dr. Thomas Dillehay from the University of Kentucky was invited to Monte Verde, Chile to verify a find more than 12,500 years old, he declined. Fortunately, he later reconsidered and did verify that the artifacts, far down into southern Chile, were authentic. Since then, discoveries have been found near Delaware which are more than 25,000 years old, and a sight along the Savannah River in South Carolina which claims to be 50,000 years old.
So what is the argument that keeps the Land Bridge Theory alive? One word, Contamination. Some way, some how, noted archaeologists from all over the world have screwed up their digs and botched the findings. Archaeologists fighting, name calling, and rebuking one another is one thing, but what about Jefferson’s language theory? Linguists have long argued against the land bridge idea. Below are a couple of note:
Edward Sapir, 1916 “Ten Thousand Years seems a hopelessly inadequate span for such linguistic differentiation.”
Franz Boas, 1940 “American Indian languages are so different that it seems doubtful that 10,000 years is sufficient time for their differentiation.”
Finally, Johanna Nichols, Professor of Linguistics at California, Berkeley, wrote in 1990, using six different mathematical formulas, that it would have taken at least 35,000 years for Native Languages to have evolved to the extent in which they have, and probably as much as 50,000.
Max E. White, Georgia’s Indian Heritage, says that “The date of the appearance of man in the New World is unknown and probably will never be known.” To this, American Indians say “We are here and have always been here ,placed by the Creator.” Who really can argue?