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

Since the early 16th-century, questions about the origins of American Indians spurred a lively theological debate.

In Part 1 of our exclusive series we examined how the discovery and examination of the ancient Mexican skeleton, Naia, has led scientists to once again rethink the origins of American Indians.

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

Since the early 16th-century, questions about the origins of American Indians spurred a lively theological debate. By the mid-19th-century, science was taking over, but that did not end the debate, indeed, it only made it more contentious than ever.


On July 18, 1866 the distinguished geologist and scion of a prominent and intellectual Massachusetts family, Josiah Whitney, wrote to his younger brother, the linguist and philologist William Dwight Whitney, of a stunning find at the bottom of a gold mine in Calaveras County, California.

The great excitement now at the office is the discovery of a human skull at a depth 153 feet below a series of volcanic beds with intercalated gravels. I have just returned from the locality, and we have the skull in the office. It is a bony fide find of the greatest interest.

Whitney, a professor at Harvard, was the first “State Geologist” of California. For his scientific achievements, the highest mountain in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, and a glacier, Whitney Glacier, would be named after him. Whitney examined the skull, which was still partially encrusted in gravel and volcanic ash and covered with a thin sheen of calcium carbonate. Although it was anatomically similar to modern humans, the skull was almost completely fossilized, strong evidence it was probably very old.

The only way to know how old, in those days, was to determine the age of the stratum in which it was buried, but Whitney had not discovered the skull. The skull was apparently found by the mine operator who then gave it to a Wells Fargo agent, who than passed it on to a doctor in San Francisco, who then contacted Whitney. Whitney visited the site, but it was now five months after the discovery and the shaft where it was found had been abandoned and become filled with water. Despite not being able to confirm the exact stratigraphic position of the skull, and therefore its age, Whitney went ahead and announced his preliminary results in a short paper before the California Academy of Sciences.

The news hit the world like a thunderclap. If the skull had indeed been found beneath four separate layers of lava, each layer between 9 and 40 feet thick, that meant that Calaveras Man was, under the reckoning of the day, around 10 million years old.

Whitney’s discovery was met with stunned disbelief from most scientists. Although the antiquity of man had just been recently accepted, 10 million years was a big, big leap. Given the new state of the science many still held an open mind. French anthropologist Jean-François-Albert du Pouget was willing to give Whitney the benefit of the doubt, although he found it odd that the skull was indistinguishable from a modern man; “it is difficult to admit the perpetuation of a type without appreciable modifications during the incalculable ages in which all nature has undergone so complete a transformation.”

But for many scientists, the idea that American Indians could be more ancient than Europeans was impossible. At the same time the theories of evolution for natural organisms were being developed in Europe, culminating in Darwin’s work, theories of social evolution had also been percolating, finding its synthesis in the works of British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who argued that societies increase in complexity over time.

Lewis Henry Morgan, in his influential work Ancient Society, proposed that humans went through various stages of development, beginning with the “Older Period of Savagery” progressing through middle and later periods into the “Older Period of Barbarism,” which also had other stages until finally the “Status of Civilization” was reached.

Thus Canadian geologist Sir John William Dawson could state in his book, Fossil Men, published in 1880, that, “existing humanity, as it appears in the Native American, is little else than the survival of primeval man in Europe.” Dawson led the charge of those scientists who fought against the antiquity of the Calaveras Skull, calling Whitney’s discovery “fanciful and improbable.”

Nor were scientists Whitney’s only detractors; there were those who still held firmly to Biblical ideas of time and creation. “The religious papers,” paleontologist John C. Merriam wrote, “in particular investigated the case and pronounced it a hoax originating with some mischievous miners.” The stories that Whitney was the victim of a practical joke spread, becoming more and more elaborate with each telling, with more and more participants claiming to have been in on it, and making the new science a source of popular ridicule. To make matters worse, Whitney took his time defending his discovery, writing a detailed report about the skull only in 1879, a full 13 years later, which allowed the controversy to fester and grow.

With the release of his report, dissenting scientists were finally able to take a crack at dismantling Whitney’s discovery and the attacks were swift and withering. The geologist William Phipps Blake, who visited the site, argued that the calcareous sheen on the skull was not typical of a fossil washed into a gravel bed, and the skull should have been more damaged and abraded. Alphonse Pinart, a champion of the Bering Strait Theory who had actually kayaked through it, contended that the site was not pristine and so there was no way of knowing where the skull came from, all of which created “the most serious doubts regarding the antiquity of this specimen.”

Whitney replied that it didn’t really matter where the skull had been found, the gravels found encrusted with it were clearly of an ancient epoch, an argument dismissed by the prominent archaeologist William Henry Holmes, who countered that the Indians could have simply buried the person in those ancient deposits. A host of distinguished scientists rose to defend Whitney. Many, such as the paleontologist William Healey Dall and geologist George Ferdinand Becker, actually examined the skull. But the lack of proof that it had come from such a deep location made it difficult to defend its great age, and there were strong grounds to believe that even if Whitney was not the victim of some prank, the skull did not come from the bottom of the mine shaft.

With Whitney’s death in 1896 the gloves came off and the Calaveras skull was systematically debunked and pronounced a hoax. Unfortunately it would be another 70 years before the skull could be dated independently of the stratum it might have come from. Because it was almost completely fossilized, the skull could not be radiocarbon dated, but a fluorine test conducted by the archaeologist Kenneth Oakley of the British Museum (Natural History) found it to be approximately 5,000 years old, ancient yes, but by no means 10 million years old.

The Paleolithic War

The highly publicized battle over the Calaveras skull was just the opening salvo of a rancorous war among American paleoanthropologists that raged across the hemisphere over the next half-century. The battle lines became drawn between those who believed, or were willing to accept, that Indians in America were ancient, that is present in this hemisphere at least 10,000 years ago or even 100,000 years ago (the Paleolithic era), and those who insisted that Indians had migrated here only within the past 5,000 years.

As Anthony T. Boldurian and John L. Cotter observed in their history of the early excavations in the Southwest, Clovis Revisited, the conflict was due “in part to heated arguments over what exactly constituted acceptable evidence.” The new science was still working out its methodology for determining how old artifacts might be. But a larger problem was that, “a few of anthropology’s influential elite seemed firmly opposed to an American Paleolithic.”

Thus any archaeological site that might betray a hint of antiquity became a bloody battleground fought between competing camps of scientists. From the suburbs in New Jersey to beaches in Florida, the wilderness of Canada to the Mississippi Delta, from the Pampas of Argentina to the valleys of Mexico, the war raged without mercy. To make things worse, amateurs and dilettantes scoured the land looking for fossils, often making outlandish claims. Among the professionals there were dozens of theories as to how old Indians were and where they came from, with some even proposing an American genesis.

In Europe, spectacular finds piled up one after another: the discovery of Cro-Magnon man in southern France in 1868; the cave art of Altamira, Spain, discovered in 1879; the discovery of extensive Neanderthal tools in 1880. But in America, paleoanthropology was completely paralyzed by the infighting. By 1900, the new science did not have a single discovery that had any consensus among its members.

Paleoanthropology needed a leader, someone who could end the chaos and put it on the path to respectability. It found it in a most unlikely person, a Czech-born anthropologist by the name of Aleš Hrdli?ka. His impact on American paleoanthropology in the coming century would be difficult to overstate.

The Rise of an Orthodoxy

Although only 34 years old in 1903, Hrdli?ka was chosen to head the new physical anthropology department at the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History) in Washington D.C. Physical anthropology, the biological study of humans, was at that time largely concerned with “racial classification,” often through the study of human skulls, and Hrdli?ka was by then one of its leading experts. Over the previous four years, Hrdli?ka had toured the Americas examining people and collecting skulls for the American Museum of Natural History and his skills had brought him to the attention of the curator of anthropology at the National Museum, William Henry Holmes.

Holmes, one of the most prominent critics of the Calaveras skull, was a veteran in the war among paleoanthropologists and the leading debunker of ancient archaeological finds. In Hrdli?ka, Holmes found a person who was an even more strident advocate of the modernity of American Indians and an unswerving devotee of the Bering Strait Theory, believing that Indians had originated in Central Europe and then reached the Americas no earlier than 3,000 BC. As the anthropologist Adolph H. Schultz wrote in 1944 in his memorial to Hrdli?ka,

In regard to his own conclusions, Hrdli?ka seems to have been rarely plagued by doubts … Thus, once having become convinced that man’s arrival in America was of comparatively recent date, he steadfastly clung to and passionately fought for this conclusion to the end of his life, even in view of evidence demanding a reconsideration of the problem of the antiquity of man in the New World.

These views were by no means a consensus among scientists then. Even conservatives like Sir John William Dawson, who was among the first to challenge the Calaveras skull and who believed that American Indians were relatively recent migrants, also believed that they had migrated through multiple routes, from Asia, the North Atlantic, and the islands of Polynesia. A host of others, like Frederic Ward Putnam, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and considered the “father of American archaeology,” were firmly convinced that Indians were here in the Paleolithic, at least 10,000 years ago or more.

Hrdli?ka subscribed to the pseudo-scientific “eugenics” theories that were in vogue at the time. Eugenics, essentially scientific racism, was based on the work of Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who had proposed that the perceived superiority of the white race was due to a superior genetic makeup, a theory highly controversial even then. Hrdli?ka worked with and was influenced by America’s leading eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport, and he received funding to conduct research and launch his magazine, The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, from Madison Grant, author of one of the most infamous works of scientific racism, The Passing of the Great Race.

Hrdli?ka’s theory of the Bering Strait migration was identical to that of James Adair, who had proposed it more than a century before, except for the Lost Tribes part. They were both based not on scientific evidence, but on a presumption born in religion that then migrated to science–the antiquity and preeminence of Western culture over all others.

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

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