An April 2017 study published in the journal Nature, which claimed archeologists had uncovered evidence that 130,000 years-ago humans butchered a mastodon in southern California, has upended the scientific community. The breakthrough is not whether the study’s conclusions are true or not, as that remains to be tested, but the fact that the study was published at all, and in a prestigious scientific journal, and that a reputable scientific institution, the San Diego Natural History Museum, would be willing to write and endorse a finding that is so completely at odds with prevailing scientific opinion.
For more than 100 years, it was simply impossible to challenge the scientific view that Ancient Indians crossed over from Asia before 15,000 years ago (or up until recently, 10,000 years ago), regardless of what the scientific evidence actually said. No scientist would risk their reputation and their academic standing to counter the prevailing view, nor would any reputable journal publish their findings even if someone was brave enough to speak out. In this eye-opening book, The Bering Strait Theory, historian Alexander Ewen (Purepecha) explores the roots of the ever-controversial Bering Strait Theory, but more importantly, the other theories, research, evidence and science that have evolved along with it, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Alexander Ewen (Purepecha) is the author of the Encyclopedia of American Indians in the 20th Century (University of New Mexico Press: 2015)
This book has its origins in a series of articles in Indian Country Today Media Network begun in June 2014 with “Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 1: How Dogma Trumped Science.”
The author wishes to thank the many commentators to these articles, almost all of whom made important and salient points, and hopes that these articles will inspire further discussion on the subject.
The author also wishes to thank Indian Country Today, Ray Cook, Christopher Napolitano, and Bob Roe for his excellent editorial work.
The immense knowledge and factual proof of many scientific theories does not exist. Many theories and facts recited by scholars are merely academic folklore which professors heard in their undergraduate days and have not examined at all.
Vine Deloria, Jr. Red Earth, White Lies (1995)
On August 2, 2013 an article in the prestigious journal Science, “Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males versus Females,” announced a major scientific breakthrough in genetic research. By a complex analysis of the human genome, a team of 11 scientists had discovered that the first modern man, the genetic “Adam,” lived in Africa between 120,000 to 156,000 years ago, around the same time that the genetic “Eve” was living there as well. By studying the differences in the Y chromosome in dozens of modern men and calculating the rate of mutation, the scientists were able to project backwards in time and determine where and when he lived.
The New York Times featured the discovery with the headline, “New Studies Suggest an ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ Link.” Before this study, the Times noted, “geneticists believed that Mitochondrial Eve appeared hundreds of thousands of years before her male counterpart.” The team, led by Stanford University geneticists G. David Poznik and Carlos D. Bustamante had “discovered thousands of previously unknown Y chromosome variations, which they say allowed them to establish more reliable molecular clocks.”
To complete the study, however, the scientists needed a way to calibrate this clock. In order to do so, they looked to American Indians.
To directly compare the TMRCA of the Y chromosome to that of the mtDNA [Mitochondrial DNA], we estimated their respective mutation rates by calibrating phylogeographic patterns from the initial peopling of the Americas, a recent human event with high-confidence archaeological dating. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans first colonized the Americas ~15 kya [15,000 years ago].
The only problem was that the statement that the initial peopling of the Americas is an “event with high-confidence archaeological dating” was simply not true.
University of New Mexico professor of anthropology E. James Dixon flatly states in Bones, Boats & Bisons, a history of American archaeology, that, “one of the most controversial issues in North American archaeology is the time when humans first colonized the Americas.” Tom Dillehay, professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt University openly admits in The Settlement of the Americas, “What we do not know is exactly when this migration occurred.” To make things even more uncertain, as David J. Meltzer, professor of prehistory at Southern Methodist University, notes in First Peoples in a New World, “It is possible that there were even more migrations, major or minor, including some that were not successful.”
Far from a high confidence, the question of when, how, and from where the first Indians came to be in this hemisphere has been a matter of constant and often acrimonious dispute in the archeological community. But not withstanding the controversies among themselves, to the outside world archaeologists have projected a certainty that ancient Indians first crossed over into America through the Bering Strait in 13,000 BC to such an extent that it has become an unquestioned fact.
So unquestioned that 11 scientists spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars doing highly sophisticated and expensive gene splicing, only to base their entire work on a tenuous and controversial theory. Unfortunately, these types of presumptions lead to studies with preconceived outcomes, so in the end the flawed studies support each other to create new scientific myths.
SCIENCE VS. INDIANS
When the late Sioux philosopher Vine Doloria, Jr. published Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact and challenged the Bering Strait Theory, he was savagely attacked by many scientists in the press. Most of them had a difficult time trying to understand his point of view. They lumped his work along with creationists, conspiracy theorists, experts on ancient astronauts, and other nuisances that scientists are often forced to deal with. In contrast to the wry humor and rambling musings that made up much of Red Earth, While Lies, the vitriol that poured from some of the harshest critics, such as John Whittaker, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, who in a review published in the journal Skeptical Inquirer referred to Deloria's book as “a wretched piece of Native American creationist claptrap,” seemed excessive.
As if to get revenge for his often comical lampooning of widely held scientific beliefs, the critics blasted Deloria for using dubious sources and lacking scientific proof when he tried to present an alternative view. Few realized that Deloria’s attack on the Bering Strait Theory was his way to highlight the differing worldviews that separate indigenous peoples from modern scientists.
The major difference between American Indian views of the physical world and Western science lies in the premise accepted by Indians and rejected by scientists: that the world in which we live in is alive. Many scientists believe this idea to be primitive superstition.
These differing perspectives collided in 1996 with the discovery of an ancient body on the banks of the Columbia River, “Kennewick Man.” A fierce court battle erupted over the remains, which pitted archaeologists and other scientists who wanted to examine Kennewick Man and store him for future study–against federal agencies that were trying to enforce a federal law that protected Indian graves.
Believed to be over 9,000 years old, for science Kennewick Man was a rare and priceless find. Of the more than 30,000 remains of indigenous peoples housed in museums across the world, fewer than 50 are Paleoindians (Ancient Indians). The rest were either collected by the army during Indian wars or were looted from historical graves.
For Indians, Kennewick Man was a person, not an artifact, who needed to rest in peace. The indiscriminate collecting of Indian remains by scientists in the past was a major reason Indians had sought passage of the federal laws that protect Indian gravesites. In the end the archaeologists emerged victorious when the courts ruled in 2004 that there was no scientific evidence that the remains were related to any contemporary Indians, and thus did not have to be reburied.
The mainstream scientific presumption in the Kennewick Man case and over Red Earth, White Lies was that Deloria and traditional Indians were similar to fundamentalist creationists, and therefore against science when it contradicts religious belief. But in fact what Deloria was proposing was that Indians were not anti-science, they were anti-scientist. In particular, they were against thosescientists who held narrow views of the world, who had no respect for other people’s traditions, who fostered a cult of superiority either for themselves or for their society, and who were afraid to search for the truth unless it already conformed with established opinion.
Deloria also argued that science, when studying people, was not neutral. In his view some scientific theories harbored social and political agendas that were used to deprive Indians and other minorities of their rights. Many of the assumptions that underlay certain scientific principles were based on obsolete religious or social views, and he urged science to shed these dubious relics of its past.
The issue for Deloria was not science vs. Indians, it was good science vs. bad science. In the two decades since Red Earth, White Lies appeared a host of new evidence has dramatically challenged the Bering Strait Theory and particularly the accepted date of 13,000 BC for the initial colonization. That the paradigm continues only seems to confirm Deloria’s view that the reason the belief is widely held has less to do with science, and more with the scientists themselves.
This series on the Bering Strait Theory was written to place the debate over the theory in context, not to provide an answer to the question of when and how the Americas were first settled. The answer to that question is still, as in the words of many Native traditions, “The Great Mystery.”
It is an examination of the origins and development of the Bering Strait Theory in order to fully comprehend the difficulties attached to having a reasoned discussion over it. For rather than being an unfettered search for the truth, the debate over this theory has been filled with a venom more characteristic of religious fanaticism than scholarly discourse. Not simply outsiders like Vine Deloria were tarred and feathered, the scientists would often reserve their most scathing attacks for each other.
So in 1892, when the geologist George Frederick Wright published his massive study, Man and the Glacial Period, which challenged some of the tenets of the Bering Strait Theory as it was then formulated, he was attacked, as Professor Meltzer pointed out in First Peoples in a New World, “with a barrage of vicious reviews which were unprecedented in number and savagery.” One critic of the book, W. J. McGee, the head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, “was especially bloodthirsty, labeling Wright’s work absurdly fallacious, unscientific, and an ‘offense to the nostrils,’ then dismissing him as ‘a betinseled charlatan whose potions are poison. Would that science might be well rid of such harpies.’”
Although his approach may not have been what scientists expect and would accept, in his basic thesis, Deloria was not wrong. Many sciences, such as economics, psychology, and anthropology, have dubious scientific principles based on little more than prejudice and the rationalization of power and greed. Thus the discussion of this scientific theory is but a microcosm of a greater issue. Today, Western culture and science are filled with dogmatic beliefs so powerful and ingrained that they are pulling this planet apart and threatening the existence of most living species.
It is the indigenous peoples that have for decades been calling for practical solutions to ensure the survival of future generations. It is unfortunate that Native voices, such as Deloria’s, have been dismissed so quickly, especially given that now, finally, even the scientists recognize that we live on a planet that is in big trouble.