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.
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
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
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.
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
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 Crèvecur 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
In Europe dramatic discoveries rapidly followed one after another,
and in America the new science was also taking off dramaticallybut
unfortunately, dramatically on the wrong foot.
Strait Theory, Pt. 2: Racism, Eugenics and When Natives Came to