TRACKING THE FIRST AMERICANS: WHO WERE THEY AND WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?
Few topics have captured the imaginations and at the same time stirred controversy among Native American scholars, not to mention the Native American peoples themselves, in recent years as the on-going question of when the first ancestral Americans arrived on this continent and from where they originated. In particular, the marshaling of new forces of science, particularly DNA, in combination with ever-expanding archeological discoveries have begun to create a somewhat clearer if still highly controversial picture of potential answers to these basic questions. Excavations and random discoveries on both coasts, along with reassessments of existing museum collections and other older data, have allowed more objective observers from both inside and outside the field to begin to develop hypotheses that might be testable in the future as more significant finds come to light. Among some scholars the whole concept of Paleo-Indian has even come under renewed scrutiny as questions about the origins of Clovis Culture and the possible ethnicity of the first native settlers of the North American continent have been called into question by highly respected anthropologists and archeologists representing several different schools of thought. The basic question has arisen that today's modern native American peoples may be the direct descendants of later migrations of founder populations migrating from Asia as recently as 6,000 years ago and that the use of the pejorative term "Indian" to represent earlier Ice Age migrants who found their way to America--by whatever means and from whatever directions as may yet be determined--may need to be modified or at least clarified in some way to permit a more valid interpretation of the reality of what truly happened here before 10,000 years ago. A brief examination of some of the more recent developments and ideas concerning these seemingly never-ending arguments might be useful at ths point to help shed some light on where things now stand.
EVIDENCE OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY
For many years it was assumed that with extremely limited exceptions the possibility of finding useful Ice Age skeletal remains of the continent's first inhabitants would be an almost insurmountable obstacle for archeology to overcome. The advent of modern DNA studies, both here and on a global scale, however, began to create the first crack in the orthodoxy of native American origins some twenty-five years or so ago. These studies almost immediately gave evidence of at least four distinct migratory waves originating somewhere in Asia beginning at some unknown Ice Age date and proceeding at different intervals until the last great expansion from the area of Siberia about 6,000 years ago. These DNA (as well as blood-groups for later origins) classifications came to be labeled the A, B, C, and D genetic groups. A fifth and more mysterious group, the so-called "X" group also was identified, but could not be matched to existing Asian populations. This Group X, which bore European as well as Asian characteristics back to in excess of 15,000 years could not be easily explained away, once a time/depth association with modern Eurasian populations in that distant time period was established using acceptable methods. It is this association which has helped to fuel the ideas of a European origin for Clovis technology that Stanford, Bradley, and a growing number of other professionals have espoused. However, some flaws in their inclusion of this DNA evidence have appeared, and at this point the relationships are not clear. We will briefly try to integrate this information shortly. Needless to say, however, the overwhelming biological evidence seems to remain unchallenged that the bulk of the early peoples who migrated to the Americas did, indeed, come from some type of Asia origination point. More importantly, it must be said that in all likelihood the "direct" ancestors of all modern Native American populations (modern here being a term applied to the last 2,000 years at a minimum) did arrive from Asia. The debate now would seem to center on what happened to the earlier peoples they may have encountered who already lived here and from where and when did those earlier inhabitants arrive?
Beginning in the 1990's and continuing unabated to the present the discovery (or re-discovery in some instances) of skeletal material of dates firmly established in the 9,000 years before the present time frame have also called into question many established origin theories. The most important of these discoveries has undoubtedly been the well-known Kennewick Man from Washington state; but other less complete and less controversial skeletal fragments have also been assigned to this early timeframe and reexamined where circumstances have allowed, often if only very briefly. As the reader may well be aware of, the controversy over these finds as they may relate to questions posed by enforcement of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) have frequently made it difficult or even impossible for interested scholars to obtain permission to study or gain access to nationally important finds. The basic concept of establishing direct ethnic or cultural links to an existing tribal entity for purposes of establishing possible reburial rights under the auspices of this well-intentioned but often poorly administered Congressional Act have frequently led to long court cases and bitter recriminations, destruction of valuable study materials, and growing rifts between scholarly and Native American rights groups of all types. The very question of just what is a Native American has become an unfortunate outgrowth of these often acrimonious cases, and the whole question of origins has been enveloped in a growing dust cloud of turf wars, intertribal battles, and anti-science bias at all levels up to and including high positions in the U.S. government. These battles are most unfortunate. However, some important scholarship has been generated--for reasons not the least of which is out of the sense of urgency that even the brief access to these important skeletal materials has allowed, before they are inevitably given over to some demanding local tribal entity for a publicity reburial, often highlighting feathered headdresses, modern dances, and other such questionable "ancient ceremonial practices".
Anyone who has seen the reconstructed face of the famous Kennewick Man skull (see any basic North American Archeology textbook or just "google it" for yourself) has immediately been struck by the obvious similarity to a distinctly non-Asian featured face. (Yes, the closeness to one European--the well-known actor Patrick Stewart is readily apparent). The examination of all other (albeit a small number of less than a dozen) skeletal finds in the 9,000 year plus age has more or less confirmed that at least some of America's Ice Age inhabitants formed a group of Eurasian featured peoples whose ultimate ethnicity cannot yet be fixed. There have even been suggestions from places like Turkey and other Asian sites that this mysterious group of Ice Age wanderers may have formed the basis for the nascent Indo-European populations that, not coincidentally, began to spread out of the Caucasus regions at about this same time period--although these ideas are still in the speculative phase based loosely on DNA and linguistic data that is not yet fully developed or reported. Attempts to compare them with Ainu and Jomon peoples of Neolithic Japan have provided some similarities, but dental evidence and other morphologic indications also lead to a coastal Chinese, even ancestral Polynesian connection, at least as to where these mysterious people's possible more modern descendants might be found. What does become obvious when the limited DNA material is examined is that: Yes, there is a possible link with descendant European populations (Obvious features such as long, extended noses on multiple, long-headed skull finds for example, indicate a people adapted to life at the edge of the Ice perhaps.). Dental evidence, however, is less clear and apparently leans toward a more central Asian origin. But again, this is all based on an embarrassingly small sample, even when some Central American finds are included.
The confusion and often vitriolic challenge unfortunately arises immediately when Native American groups even hear the word "European" given to any of these ancient skeletal remains. The "Official" Native American point of view where most all tribes are concerned, however, remains that of: "Our ancestors were always here, and any attempt to show otherwise is a violation of our religious beliefs." Such attitudes in the face of actual scientifically acquired evidence to the contrary makes it difficult to deal effectively with both conservative tribal councils and the misguided government officials or agencies, who seem overly willing to award any "victory" that does not cost the government money to any petitioning native rights group, regardless of the true merits of their case otherwise. What these new DNA and morphologic studies do seem to suggest however, (and this would appear to be equally important and even more exciting) is that before 10,000 years ago, at the latest, there was an ancestral population of humans that matriculated along the edge of the ice, hunting large animals, and following them across much of the then available land mass of the entire northern hemisphere. This ancestral population expanded rapidly, following the Bering Land Bridge, or perhaps even making their way from Solutrean Iberia by boat or however, into North America and then fairly quickly into Central and South America by coastal routes, where similar Eurasian-featured skeletal remains have been found with very early dates. There is every indication that this widespread group of people represented a unique and now apparently extinct ethnic classification. Perhaps, due to the fact that these Ice Age wanderers were predominantly male hunter groups, little evidence of their mitochondrial DNA (which can be traced only through the female line) appears today and thus accounts for the lack of their DNA footprints existing in any large degree in surviving populations. (Ironically, Polynesians, as one of the last possible places occupied by these mysterious ancestors, seem to exhibit the fullest expression of what genetic material these people might have possessed and what they might have looked like as they spread farther away from Ice Age environments.) If these people relied heavily upon existing populations they encountered to obtain their females, then it is easy to see why their genetic legacy would be more quickly absorbed and ultimately reduced to such as the "X Group" traces we see in a few modern Native American populations, despite their apparent long-range ties. It does become a mistake, however, to use this tie as a positive and irrefutable argument that Clovis Culture, must have come from the direction of Europe. Apparently, these unknown and now extinct ancestors could have come from either direction, as certain surviving Asian populations, such as the Ainu of northern Japan, would also indicate. Nevertheless, these new discoveries provide food for thought and new arguments. Unfortunately, unless far more sound reason is applied to existing laws and their application to skeletal remains of great age when they are discovered, it will become difficult to acquire the data to argue any point of view on this matter with the degree of certainty that Science rightfully requires.
CULTURAL AND ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
As has been well-documented in many sources now (including earlier articles in this blog series on Clovis origins) a major problem in assigning Asian origins for any model of the earliest occupation of North America has been the disquieting fact that obvious precursors for the distinctive Clovis point technology have not been located anywhere they might have been expected to be found in Siberia or other Asian locales. That the most obvious similarities in the classic Clovis fluted point come not from Asia but from the Solutrean sites of the Iberian Peninsula some 20,000 years ago has until its recent championing by Dennis Stanford and other important voices often been difficult to reconcile with more conservative viewpoints, despite the facts on the ground, so-to-speak. As pointed out in an earlier article in this blog, the too-often neglected evidence of the other tool types associated with Clovis (end-scrapers, etc.) also point even more convincingly to an Upper Paleolithic association with Ice Age Europe. It has also been pointed out that, by far, the greatest amount and the earliest Clovis material seems to come from the eastern U.S., more particularly the vast Ice Age open expanses of the Southeastern Coastal Plains. However, there are those who could argue that an antecedent population making its way down the coast from Alaska to Central America could have, by following the coastlines as most agree must have happened in either case, crossed the much narrower isthmus that would have existed back then and moved right up the gulf coast to the same regions these earlier Clovis remains are found. Sampling error, they would say, could easily account for what mistakenly appears to be an east-to-west, rather than the opposite direction of movement many archeologists still cling to with equal fervor. The absence of any skeletal remains from the eastern U.S. makes this argument as plausible for some to believe as the equally difficult to swallow trans-Atlantic theory of Stanford and his adherents.
By far, the bulk of the evidence for pre-Clovis occupation of North America would have to come in the form of a micro-blade technology in which inserts into bone and antler preforms formed the basis of any such peoples' more limited hunting and gathering subsistence patterns. The antecedents for such a technology are readily apparent in northeastern Asia back to Ice Age times and even earlier if one continues south into China and the first arrival of modern humans there. As to the dates which we must ultimately strive to assign to America's first occupants, regardless of from what direction they may have come, this will continue to be an on-going problem. The main reason for this, of course, is that the key archeological sites that might ultimately help to settle this issue will remain buried under the seas along our continental shelves from the coasts of Alaska to those of Virginia. Too often, those who argue against one origin theory or another based exclusively upon existing information and dates fail to take into proper account that a wealth of Ice Age data unquestionably lies buried along our coasts. There, any such information lies awaiting the return of the next Ice Age to lower the ocean levels once more and allow us to settle the issue once and for all.
Let us hope that someone is still around to take advantage of such an opportunity and that the whole concept of SCIENCE--at least as we know it--has not been relegated to the scrap heap of history, as many people in high places seem Hell-bent on sending it in this lifetime. In the meantime, for any reader interested in a fuller synthesis of many of these ideas and concepts, this writer would encourage you to check out the first novel in The People of the Stone saga, THE STONE BREAKERS. Set in the late Ice Age Ohio Valley, this exciting story is a fictional account of the author's lifetime of dealing with the many controversies and technologies surrounding this amazingly interesting topic and forms a unique backdrop and tightly-plotted narrative for what life at the end of the last Ice Age may have been like.
As always, the reader's comments, suggestions, or additions to any article in this blog series are strongly encouraged. Just click on COMMENT and log-in to our easy to access and secure website, or feel free to communicate with the author by email directly by clicking on the CONTACT icon at the top of this page.
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