Skip to main content

Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 1: How Dogma Trumped Science

The discovery and examination of the ancient Mexican skeleton, Naia, has led scientists to once again rethink the origins of American Indians.

The discovery and examination of the ancient Mexican skeleton, Naia, has led scientists to once again rethink the origins of American Indians. While there has been a rancorous debate over some details regarding who the first peoples of the Americas might have been, the broader context is usually the Bering Strait Theory, the idea that Paleoindians walked from Asia over an ancient land bridge approximately 15,000 years ago. Among scientists, this theory appears unshakable, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it. Indeed, a host of scientific evidence, from linguistics to genetics, does not support the theory.

RELATED: New Discovery Confirms Native American Views on Their Ancestry

RELATED: How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory

As recent scientific discoveries have undercut the Bering Strait Theory, a new hypothesis has emerged, the “Beringian Standstill Theory.” The Standstill hypothesis, which proposes that Paleoindians lived isolated in the land bridge area for almost 20,000 years before migrating to the Americas, is also a controversial conjecture that has questionable scientific merit.

The reason for the insistence by scientists in the primacy of the Bering Strait Theory is not because of science, but because of dogma. This is well known among the scientists, many of whom have chafed under its strictures. So in 1998, Dennis Stanford, director of the Paleoindian program at the Smithsonian Institution, coined the term “Clovis Police” to refer to those “die-hard archaeologists who insist upon Clovis as representing the earliest culture in the New World.” James Adovasio, known for his excavations of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, devoted an entire chapter of his 2002 book, The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery, to the “Paleo-police” who have frustrated his attempts to gain recognition for the antiquity of the site.

When genetic studies that proposed an ancient contact between Polynesians and American Indians – not in conformity with the Bering Strait Theory – were published by University of Hawaii geneticist Rebecca Cann, they were met with a swift and fierce rebuttal. Cann is a pioneer among geneticists, her research having developed the concept of the “Mitochondrial Eve” and the currently accepted “Out of Africa” theory of modern human origins. She was not someone to be trifled with, and she shot back in a letter in the American Journal of Human Genetics, dismissing much of her critics’ data, interpretations, and point of view; “Rather than make dogmatic statements, we feel that it is better to encourage the open exploration of this debate, with more genetic markers and the use of data already in the literature.”

But open exploration of the debate is not going to happen, because the debate itself is moderated by ideologues, who determine the evidence that may be used, and ignore the evidence that does not fit the theory. In order to understand why this is, one must look at the history of the Bering Strait Theory, which will only shed a little light on the development of science, but offers important lessons on how and why a dogma is created.

The Birth of a Theory

When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas in 1492, he set off an endless round of speculation in Europe regarding the lands and its people. By 1797, Benjamin Smith Barton could write in his book New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America that the “opinions of writers concerning the origin, or parental countries, of the Americans are as numerous as the tribes and nations who inhabit this vast portion of the earth.

In those days, the study of science was still a subset of theology so virtually all of the early theories of Indian origins were based on the Bible. Typical of these early scientists was the keen-eyed Jesuit observer Friar Joseph de Acosta, whose book The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (as America was then known), published in 1590, is among the first in the nascent field of anthropology. For Acosta, the evidence was clear.

The reason why we are forced to admit that the men of the Indies came from Europe or Asia is so as not to contradict the sacred Scriptures, which clearly teaches that all men descend from Adam; and thus we cannot assign any other origin for the men of the Indies.

Similarly, the colonization was believed to have taken place only in the past few thousand years. The scientific consensus at that time, held by the foremost chronologists of the Bible, such as Jesuit philosopher Benedict Pereira, Irish archbishop James Ussher, the astronomer Johannes Kepler and the physicist Isaac Newton, was that humans were created around 4,000 BC and the Flood unleashed around 2,400 BC.

Although it would be another 138 years before European explorers would find the Bering Strait, Acosta and many other 16th-century scientists had already assumed that Asia and the Americas were connected. They reasoned that since all of the animals in the world were descended from those saved by Noah from the Flood, the animals that were in the New World had to have walked over by some as yet undiscovered passageway. Acosta argued similarly “that the race of men arrived by traveling little by little until they reached the New World, and the continuity or nearness of the lands helped in this.”

Not everyone agreed with Acosta. The 16th-century Swiss scientist and father of chemistry, Paracelsus, believed the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas were a separate creation of God and not descended from Adam and Eve. His theory, however, met with little support, as there was no evidence of a separate creation in the Bible.

In 1681, Diego Andrés Rocha proposed in his book, A Unique and Singular Treatise on the Origins of the Indians of Peru, Mexico, Santa Fe, and Chile that Indians were the descendants of Noah’s son Japheth and had come to the Americas by way of Atlantis. Since Rocha believed the Spanish were also descended from Japheth, and thus related to Indians, the colonization of the Americas by Spain was to him a fulfillment of divine providence.

Not to be outdone, British writers such as Richard Hakluyt and George Bruder argued that ancient Indians were Welsh and thus justified the British explorations of North America. The Dutch legal philosopher, Hugo Grotius, believed they were northern Europeans who had sailed across the Atlantic, since had they come from Asia they would have surely brought their horses. Many believed Indians were descended from Canaan, the grandson of Noah who was cursed by God, or Ophir, a descendant of Noah’s son Shem who settled in a land rich with gold.

The most enduring origin theory based on the Bible was that Indians were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, a belief still held today by devout Mormons. It was proposed in 1567 by both French Benedictine scholar Gilbert Genebrard in Chronicle in Two Volumes and Dutch priest Joannes Fredericus Lumnius in his book De Extremo dei Judicio et Indorum Vocatione. As evidence they produced the apocryphal Second Book of Esdras, which tells the story of how the Lost Tribes escaped their Assyrian captors and fled “to a far away country where mankind had never lived,” a region called Arsareth, or in their view, America.

Irish anthropologist James Adair popularized this notion in his book published in 1775, The History of the American Indians, bringing a wealth of (what at that time was considered to be) scientific evidence to back up the Lost Tribes theory. Adair also argued that the early migrants had crossed the Bering Strait.

The Russians, after several dangerous attempts, have clearly convinced the world that [Asia and America] are now divided and have close communication by a narrow strait, in which several islands are situated, through which there is an easy passage from the north-east of Asia to the north-west of America. … By this passage, supposing the main continents were separated, it was very practical for the inhabitants to go to this extensive new world, and afterwards have proceeded in quest of suitable climes.

Although Adair’s ideas about the Lost Tribes would largely fall out of favor, his theory about the Bering Strait would not.

Science Takes Over

On September 6, 1856, a small article appeared in the local newspaper in Elberfeld, Germany.

In the neighboring Neander Valley … a surprising discovery was made in recent days. During the breaking away of limestone cliffs … a cave was uncovered, which over the course of centuries had been filled with clay sediment. Upon digging out this clay, a human rib was found …

The news caught the attention of the distinguished naturalist and professor of anatomy at the University of Bonn, Hermann Schaaffhausen, who at first speculated that the ancient skeleton uncovered was nothing less than an ancestor of American Indians. Upon actual examination of the fossil, what he reported sent shock waves through the Western world.

Neanderthal Man, as he was dubbed, was human, but an entirely different species of human. The concept was not easy to grasp at that time. The idea that there might have existed other forms of humans had rarely been contemplated, much less fit into any existing theory of human origins. Schaaffhausen’s conclusions met with a swift rejection from most other German scientists, who argued that despite the extreme mineralization, the unusual skeleton was not old, he was either a ”poor wretch” who had been deformed by disease, or a Russian Cossack.

But others were ready to accept the possibility that ancient humans existed even if there was no mention of them in the Bible. Geologists, beginning with James Hutton in the 18th-century, had already begun to challenge the notion that the Flood had deposited the many differing layers of soils, rock, and sediments, and argued convincingly that the earth was much, much older than previously thought. In 1837 the Swiss botanist and geologist Louis Agassiz proposed his then extremely controversial theory that the earth had been subject in the ancient past to an ice age.

William Pengelly’s systematic excavations at Brixham Cave in England in 1858, where he found stone tools located alongside extinct ice age animals, was therefore seen as convincing proof of the antiquity of humans. The next year the excavations in the Somme Valley by French archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes, who as early as 1847 proposed that men had lived during the ice age, were examined and confirmed, and the findings presented before a stellar assemblage of scientists at London’s prestigious Royal Society, where they were accepted.

With the discoveries of Neanderthal Man, Brixham Cave, and the Somme, antiquarians (as those who studied the human past were then called) were forced to make a choice, and out of that choice a new science, paleoanthropology, was born. The same year that the antiquity of man was confirmed and accepted by the scientists of the Royal Society, Charles Darwin published his famous work, On the Origin of Species, leading to a lasting break with long-held Biblical theories of the natural world.

Paleoanthropology, the study of ancient humans, began as (and still is) a mixture of many sciences and its founding members were composed of academics from practically every discipline: geology, anthropology, biology, archeology, anatomy, and chemistry, to name a few. They were joined by a host of amateurs: businessmen, doctors, bankers, and schoolteachers, who would search for fossils in their spare time.

In Europe dramatic discoveries rapidly followed one after another, and in America the new science was also taking off dramatically–but unfortunately, dramatically on the wrong foot.

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 2: Racism, Eugenics and When Natives Came to America

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 3: The Theory Becomes a Religious Crusade

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 4: The Indisputable Facts in the Artifacts

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 5: The Theory Comes Crashing Down

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 6: DNA, Blood Types and Stereotypes