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

Alexander Ewen

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

In Part 2 of our exclusive series we looked at the mid-19th-century’s movement of science making a push to take over, and how the debate did not end, instead it only made it more contentious than ever.

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In Europe, the new science of paleoanthropology had uncovered spectacular finds, but in America, it was paralyzed by infighting. In 1903, the new head of the physical anthropology department at the National Museum (now the Smithsonian), Aleš Hrdli?ka, and like-minded colleagues, were determined to end the disputations and promote professionalism and respectability.

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By founding the first journal and first professional association of physical anthropology in the early 1900s, Hrdli?ka became the undisputed authority in that field. By insisting that the form of evidence suitable for answering the question of American origins only lay in physical anthropology, he cut out any other form of scientific evidence, for example linguistics, as most linguists were clearly at odds with his theory at that time. With Hrdli?ka at the head of the physical anthropology department at the National Museum, William Henry Holmes as curator of anthropology at the National Museum, and W.J. McGee at the helm of the Bureau of Ethnology, the top government positions in anthropology were now filled with ardent critics of the antiquity of humans in America.

Hrdli?ka and his colleagues then proceeded to debunk every known potentially ancient site in America and South America. His zeal was so great, as George W. Stocking wryly notes in The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, that “he succeeded in exiling early man from the hemisphere–so successfully that until 1930 it was almost heretical to claim an antiquity of greater than two or three thousand years.”

As the eminent archaeologist and director of the Bureau of Ethnology, Frank H.H. Roberts, who coined the term Paleoindian, wrote in 1940.

The upshot was that the question of early man in America became virtually taboo, and no anthropologist, or for that matter geologist or paleontologist, desirous of a successful career would tempt the fate of ostracism by intimating that he had discovered indications of a respectable antiquity for the Indian.

It has been argued that Hrdli?ka’s heavy handed tactics at least cleaned up the mess that was American paleoanthropology, and there certainly is much truth to that. Gone were the amateurs and dilettantes, gone were the hoaxsters and forgers, gone were the acrimonious pitched battles. Gone also was any other theory of American Indian origins but the Bering Strait Theory. As Roberts pointed out, the cleaning came with a heavy price.

The critics unquestionably did valuable service in exposing the fallacy of many claims, but eventually they were swept away by the ardor of their own crusade and definitely retarded the progress of investigations by their dogmatic denial of the possibility of traces of occupation other than those left by recent Indians. Augmenting this was a categorical refusal to consider new evidence as it came to light.

Not simply retard investigations, Hrdli?ka sent American paleoanthropology into the Dark Ages.

Science Goes Backwards

In 1949, when Kenneth Oakley of the British Museum (Natural History) used his new fluorine test to finally expose the Piltdown Man, a celebrated hoax in England in which a human skull was fitted with an ape’s jaw and then “discovered” in 1912 and promoted as an evolutionary “missing link,” he was shocked to discover shortly afterwards that he had not invented the technique. Thomas Wilson, curator of prehistoric archeology at the National Museum in Washington, D.C., had used it as early as 1892. In 1895 Wilson used the fluorine test to examine the antiquity of one of the most intriguing, and sensational, finds of the 19th-century.

During excavations near Natchez, Mississippi between 1837 and 1844, Montroville Wilson Dickeson, a Philadelphia physician and a pioneer in archeology, uncovered a cache of extinct animals including mastodons, horses, bisons, and ground sloths (megalonyx and mylodon). In the presentation of his finds before the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia in 1846, he shocked his audience when he told them he had found a human pelvis alongside the bones of the extinct animals.

That this bone is in the fossil state is clearly manifest from its physical characters, in which it accords in every aspect of color, density, etc. with those of the megalonyx and other assorted bones. That it could not have drifted into the position it was found is manifest from several facts … that the human bone was found at least 2 feet below three associated skeletons of the megalonyx. …

At that time it was not clear what to make of Dickeson’s find, since scientific notions of the antiquity of man or animals were still in development. Dickeson was arguably the most famous archaeologist in America, had discovered troves of dinosaur bones as well as investigated the mysterious Indian mounds, and so his word was not to be taken lightly. The famous British geologist Charles Lyell examined the site and pelvis, and although he did not dispute it, he had his doubts. In time the bones were stored at the Academy’s museum in Philadelphia, but they were not forgotten and remained a continual subject of discussion.

Thomas Wilson, a Civil War cavalry officer who rose to the rank of colonel, had worked for the State Department, where in the course of his travels he had come to know many of the leading anthropologists in Europe. He joined the National Museum in 1889 and, aloof from the bitter disputes then raging among paleoanthropologists, had an open mind about American Indian antiquity. Wilson was aware that Josiah Whitney had done a fluorine test on the Calaveras skull as far back as 1868 (although Whitney did not grasp its significance) and that the test had been in use by mining companies in Europe. Wilson first experimented on the Calaveras Skull, which he compared to the teeth of an extinct rhino and found a good match, but that was not conclusive because local conditions can affect the absorption rate of fluorine and the two had not been found together.

It was better to try this test on the Natchez Pelvis, for the fluorine test cannot give a date, but it can be used to compare two fossils to each other. Since the bones of a ground sloth were found right next to that of the pelvis, if they were the same age, they should have the same concentrations of fluorine. Moreover, since fluorine is absorbed into the fossils over time, the older the fossil, the higher the fluorine content, and so they should both have high levels of fluorine.

Wilson found exactly that. Both the ground sloth and the Natchez pelvis had similar fluorine contents that were much, much higher than modern bones. He concluded in his report that “the bones under the present consideration, the man and the mylodon are substantially of the same antiquity” and “this, therefore bears out the contention of the value of this test.” As he wrote to one of his associates with deserved satisfaction:

I consider this to be a valuable discovery, and one that may afford large opportunities for determining the antiquity of man in America, thereby aiding to settle some of those disputed questions about which the dogmatism of certain scientists has had such a free rein.

Unfortunately for Wilson–and for the science of paleoanthropology–shortly after his great discovery the leading dogmatist of the day, William Henry Holmes, the ardent debunker of Indian antiquity, was named the curator of anthropology at the National Museum and became Wilson’s boss. The significance of the test was discounted and after Wilson died in 1902, the test was forgotten. In 1907, when Hrdli?ka examined the Natchez Pelvis only to dismiss it, he did not bother to bring up Wilson’s fluoride test.

After Hrdli?ka’s death, the famed forensic anthropologist and Hrdli?ka’s successor at the National Museum, T. Dale Stewart, found in Hrdli?ka’s files the report by Wilson on the Natchez Pelvis. Stewart lamented the lost opportunity in a letter to Science in 1951, “for 55 years anthropology has been deprived of an important objective argument in favor of the antiquity of man in America.”

A Legacy of Dogma

As David J. Meltzer summed it up in his important discussion of the fluorine test, “A Question of Relevance,” in the book, Tracing Archeology’s Past, “Hrdli?ka depended far more on morphological evidence than on analytical tests, geological evidence, or context to determine the antiquity of human remains.” While numerous scientific tools were being developed to study the world, Hrdli?ka would have none of it, indeed, he stifled their use. A tribute written by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu could not help but condemn him.

In many respects Hrdli?ka’s methodology belonged to the nineteenth rather than to the twentieth century. … As editor of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology he played an important part in discouraging the use of advanced statistical methods in papers submitted to the journal. Hrdli?ka’s knowledge of genetics was also severely limited, so that he failed to grasp the capital importance of genetic science for the future development of physical anthropology.

Other lost opportunities included a host of human fossils found in Argentina in the 1870s, many in association with extinct animals, that Hrdli?ka summarily dismissed. Hrdli?ka skewered their discoverer, Florentino Ameghino–who admittedly had fanciful ideas about his discoveries, but was fortunately dead by the time Hrdli?ka punctured them–writing that the Argentine naturalist “could scarcely be regarded as a well-trained and experienced geologist.” Be that as it may, in 2011 the Argentine archaeologist Gustavo G. Politis radiocarbon dated some of Ameghino’s discoveries, finding a number of them to be ancient and one, an Arroyo de Frías skeleton, to be more than 12,000 years old, among the oldest in the hemisphere.

To find absolute, indisputable proof of ancient man was almost impossible, and even if the impossible had been found, that was not enough. As Hrdli?ka wrote in 1912:

The significance of the association of fossil animal bones with human bones, even in the cases in which the former shows effects of man’s activity, is entirely problematic. The enumeration by the paleontologists in this and other cases, of long lists of names of extinct animals found with or near the human bones, or in the vicinity, or in the same strata, is impressive, but alone counts for little as evidence of the age of the remains of man found in such a relation.

So despite the host of sites in which humans (or human tools) and ancient extinct animals had been found together, this was not proof. Hrdli?ka had set up the Bering Strait Theory and the modernity of Indians as the established dogma, not on the basis of the evidence–the evidence had been clearly pointing the other way for over a half a century–but on the basis of his own beliefs. He then required almost impossible conditions for those beliefs to be challenged. The pattern of requiring indisputable scientific evidence to overturn pseudoscientific mythology would be one of his unfortunate but enduring legacies.

The only way Hrdli?ka was going to believe in an American antiquity was if a Paleoindian came up and speared him in the chest. And in a certain respect, that is exactly what happened.

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