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.
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
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
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"
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
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
Ale Hrdlicka. 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, Hrdlicka 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 Hrdlicka was by then one
of its leading experts. Over the previous four years, Hrdlicka 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 Hrdlicka, 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 Hrdlicka,
In regard to his own conclusions, Hrdlicka 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.
Hrdlicka 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. Hrdlicka 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
Hrdlicka'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 sciencethe antiquity and preeminence of Western
culture over all others.
Strait Theory, Pt. 3: The Theory Becomes a Religious Crusade