Sidebar: The Clash of Sciences

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To understand just one of the many scientific criticisms of the Bering Strait Theory, we must go halfway around the world to the continental mass known as the Sahul, which includes Australia, New Guinea and surrounding islands. Like the Americas, it had long been assumed by archaeologists that the indigenous peoples who lived in that region had migrated there from Asia just a few thousand years ago. It then came as a massive shock to those same archaeologists when in 1968, near Lake Mungo in Southeastern Australia, the geologist Jim Bowler discovered the remains of a cremated woman who was subsequently radiocarbon- dated to be between 25,000 and 32,000 years old. Lake Mungo Woman, as she came to be known, was repatriated to the Aboriginal community in 1992.

Yet this discovery had already been anticipated by other scientists, for example, the linguists. The Sahul is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, home to more than 1,000 languages, about one-fifth of the world’s total. The linguists had already predicted that the “time depth” required to achieve this type of linguistic diversity was clearly not in the thousands of years, but in the tens of thousands of years. Subsequent archaeological finds have now pushed back the date of human occupation of Australia to a minimum of 45,000 years ago and possibly 60,000 years ago.

The only area in the world that has a comparable level of linguistic diversity as the Sahul is the Americas, and in certain very important respects, the Americas are even more diverse. Since the very first period of contact between Europeans and Indians, observers had marveled at how many different languages and cultures were to be found. Thomas Jefferson, among the leading scientists of his day, wrote in 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

Imperfect as is our knowledge of the tongues spoken in America, it suffices to discover the following remarkable fact. Arranging them under the radical ones to which they may be palpably traced, and doing the same by those of the red men of Asia, there will be found probably twenty in America, for one in Asia, of those radical languages, so called because, if they were ever the same, they have lost all resemblance to one another.

Today, linguists call Jefferson’s “radical languages,” language families or stocks, each made up of numerous languages and dialects. As Jefferson saw it, this diversity clearly pointed to the great age of American Indians; “A separation into dialects may be the work of a few ages only, but for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin, must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth.”

Based upon the linguistic evidence, Jefferson believed that “a greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia,” and led him to speculate that Asians may have been the descendants of early American Indian migrations from the Americas to Asia.

Exactly how diverse the American languages were became clearer in 1891, when the famed explorer and director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell, released the monumental work, Indian Linguistic Families North of Mexico. In his introduction, Powell explained that, “The North American Indian tribes, instead of speaking related dialects, originating in a single parent language, in reality speak many languages belonging to distinct families, which have no apparent unity of origin.” Powell grouped the American Indian languages in the U.S. and Canada into 58 language families (or stocks) that could not be shown to be related to one another.

John Wesley Powell's 1891 book, Indian Linguistic Families North of Mexico, presented a map that illustrates some of the astounding diversity in the languages of this hemisphere.

John Wesley Powell's 1891 book, Indian Linguistic Families North of Mexico, presented a map that illustrates some of the astounding diversity in the languages of this hemisphere.

Since Powell’s day his classification has been modified somewhat and attempts to link many of these language families together to create “super stocks” have met with mixed success. Although what constitutes a family, stock or super stock is a matter of continuing debate among linguists, today it is generally accepted that there are 150 different language families in the Americas. To give some perspective to this diversity, there are more language families in the Americas than in the rest of the world combined.

Of the 150 New World language families, the super stock Eskimo-Aleut also spans the Arctic and so has Asian and European relatives. Another language super stock, Na-Dené, composed of the language stocks Athabaskan, Tlingit and Eyak, and located in Alaska and the northwest coast (but also in the southwestern U.S.), is also believed to have relatives in Asia, possibly the Yeneisian languages of central Siberia. It has long been suggested, and the issue is not particularly controversial, that peoples speaking Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené have moved back and forth between Asia and the Americas.

Other than Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené, linguists have yet to find any connection with any language stocks of the Americas and those of Asia. Along with the tremendous hemispheric diversity, this created serious doubts about the dates proposed by archaeologists and physical anthropologists for Indian origins. At the beginning of the 20th century it was held to be at most 10,000 years and generally only 5,000 years. In 1916, Edward Sapir, among the most important and influential linguists in history, countered the prevailing archaeological view; “ten thousand years, however, seems a hopelessly inadequate span of time for the development from a homogeneous origin of such linguistic differentiation as is actually found in America.” Instead he argued that, “the best piece of evidence of great antiquity of man in America is linguistic diversification rather than archaeological.”

One of America’s greatest scientists, Franz Boas, generally considered to be the father of modern anthropology and an important linguist in his own right, in his classic study, Race, Language, and Culture, published in 1940, wrote that not only were American Indian languages “so different among themselves that it seems doubtful whether the period of 10,000 years is sufficient for their differentiation,” but that the evidence of extremely ancient Indians would some day be found, and that, “all we can say, therefore, is that the search for early remains must continue.” Indeed, Boas was among the first to propose, based on the evidence from an expedition that he led to the Bering Strait region in 1897, of a “back migration” from the Americas to Asia.

Linguists were not the only ones who recognized the importance of the linguistic evidence. The great British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey firmly believed that the linguistic evidence showed that Indians were likely to be many tens of thousands of years old and possibly much older, and shortly before his death in 1972 he began to sponsor fieldwork in the Americas in the hopes of proving this. But most American archaeologists and physical anthropologists, where the dogmatism of the Bering Strait Theory is most pronounced, dismissed or ignored the linguistic evidence, leading people and the mainstream press to assume that linguists were silent on this subject, even though the reverse was true.

Starting in 1987, the tensions between the proponents of the Bering Strait Theory and linguists turned into open warfare as archaeologists and geneticists used a highly disputed (and now completely discredited) theory by the linguist Joseph Greenberg to claim that the linguistic evidence now (after hundreds of years of refuting it) showed that Indians migrated from Asia to the New World around 15,000 years ago. The dispute led to a torrent of scientific papers by the world’s most prominent linguists denouncing the use of “non-science” and faulty data to back the Bering Strait Theory.

The dispute also led the influential linguist, Johanna Nichols, to publish “Linguistic Diversity and the First Settlement of the New World,” in the journal Language in 1990. In her introduction, she first made two important scientific points: the diversity of the languages of the New World is due to “the operation of regular principles of linguistic geography;” and that the linguistic and archaeological evidence from the Sahul clearly contradicted the attempts to assign early dates for the Bering Strait migration, since the assignment of early dates in the New World would create a scientific anomaly; “but such a discrepancy–one of at least an order of magnitude–must be assumed if we adhere to the Clovis [15,000 years ago] or received chronology [20,000 years ago] for the settlement of the New World.”

Nichols’ paper used six independent linguistic methods for calculating American Indian antiquity and she determined that it would have taken a minimum of 50,000 years for all of the American Indian languages to have evolved from one language, or 35,000 years if migrants had come in multiple waves. She concluded that, “The unmistakable testimony of the linguistic evidence is that the New World has been inhabited nearly as long as Australia or New Guinea.”

Attempts by Clovis First advocates to refute Nichols were not particularly successful. Daniel Nettle, not a linguist but a biologist with Newcastle University in the UK, in a short, four- page article entitled, “Linguistic Diversity of the Americas Can be Reconciled With a Recent Colonization,” began with a familiar argument:

The problem of the colonization of the Americas will be definitively answered only by archaeology, because archaeology has direct methods for dating human presence. . . . the idea that non-archeological considerations make belief in a late colonization untenable must be dismissed.

This, of course, was another way of saying that “indisputable proof” is required to overturn a position that is in itself not based upon evidence, but on dogma. Nettle then proceeded to argue that given that Africa is the oldest continent, and it has fewer linguistic stocks than the Americas, then “the long-term tendency is for diversity to decline with time.” Needless to say this argument, which did not make any sense (unless we assume that humans were created speaking thousands of different languages), was not taken seriously.

Like any evidence against the theory that could not be disputed, Nichol’s paper was largely ignored by the paleoanthropological community. But it was not the only linguistic evidence that indicated that Indians were far more ancient than the Clovis First theory presupposed. The same year that Nichols presented her findings, a team from the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas, Richard A. Rogers, Larry D. Martin and T. Dale Nicklas, writing in the Journal of Biogeography, argued that the distribution of North American Indian languages followed geographical boundaries, known as biogeographic zones, that were created during the last Ice Age.

In their article “Ice-Age Geography and the Distribution of Native North American Languages,” they found that the “boundaries of biogeographic zones formed linguistically significant barriers which correspond to the boundaries of certain modern aboriginal language families.” These barriers aided or hindered linguistic diversity and the creation of language isolates. They concluded that the many “distinctive language families must have been firmly culturally established at the height of the last glaciation 18,000 years ago.” When the ice sheets retreated, language families expanded into uncovered regions that already suited their cultures. Since this paper could not be challenged, it was also completely ignored by the paleoanthropologists.

While recent genetic studies have shown relationships between certain Indian groups and some tribes in Central Siberia, the linguistic evidence (and some genetic evidence) argues that the Indian tribes are actually older. A new study, published on March 12, 2014 in the journal PLoS, “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia,” found that Na-Dené, which includes the Alaskan Athabaskan languages as well as Navajo and Apache, is not descended from a Central Siberian language known as Yeneisian (as the Bering Strait Theory would infer) but the other way around, that there was a “back-migration into central Asia than a migration from central or western Asia to North America.”

The linguistic evidence for the deep antiquity of American Indians is strong and long- standing. Granted it is not “proof” that Indians were here more than 15,000 years ago, but then “proof” is a legal, not a scientific concept. It is simply evidence, and strong evidence by any scientific standard. Archaeologists, however, have made it clear that the only evidence they will accept is archaeological (unless it happens to support the Bering Strait Theory).

Much like the fundamentalist Christian creationists, who will only accept evidence that is in the Bible or that agrees with it, the blind stance by archaeologists is a unfortunate legacy of the religious and ideological roots that underscored the Bering Strait Theory as formulated by Aleš Hrdlička.