IN THE BEGINNING

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All humans are interested in their origins and try to account for their existence through creation stories. Creation stories commonly explain how people came into existence, how they came to be live where they do, how they acquired tools and customs, and why people should act, or not act, in certain ways. Most commonly creation stories contain fundamental conceptions of nature, society, and how people ought to relate to the world and to one another. All societies have such creation stories. Every native North American society has such stories recounting the actions and deeds of "power" in the past. Here are two such stories.

Life . . . rests on five successive periods. Its first was...self-born. That was the divine spirit, the first cause, the desire to be. Then came the creation; the creation of being, the bringing into begin of material things--the starts of heaven, the elements of earth and atmosphere, life in its elemental form, the desire to live and survive.... The first earth's environment was one of mists--immaterial, unformed. The second was of water, with land portions floating on it. During this period all sea life was conceived and developed. The third stage brought the coming of animals and bird life of many kinds along with elemental human types. The fourth stage was a time of earth wandering, a search by Navajo forebears for a durable home. This was found; the land of turquoise skies. The fifth has been of gradual advance...of the Navajo people.

Navajo Creation Account (from The American Indian: Prehistory to the Present by Arrell M. Gibson, 1980, D.C. Heath and Company, pg. 2)


Everything was water except a very small piece of ground. On this were the eagle and the coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent the coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: "They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone." The eagle said: " That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something." The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.

Yaudanchi Creation Account (The Yaudanchi live in the south-central San Joaquin Valley of California).


Like North America's Native People, anthropologists and archaeologists also have creation stories which explain how America's native peoples came to be, though their stories differ markedly from those of most of the Native People. It's not a better story, just a different one. The short, and until a few years ago the standard textbook, version goes like this:

Humans first evolved in Africa some 4 to 5 million years ago. Over the next 4 million years, through the interplay of evolution and adaptation, survival and extinction, many species of humans evolved. By about 100,000 - 120,000 years ago, people physically like modern humans had evolved in Africa and sometime around 100,000 years ago some of them migrated out into the rest of the world, reaching central and eastern Asia by at least 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. And it was from these "out-of-Africa" populations that the first immigrants into the Americans came,reaching North America sometime before 12,000 years ago. Some of these immigrants walked into America via a land bridge that at one time linked northeast Asia with Alaska. Others came by boat, moving along the southern coast of the land bridge.


For scientists, especially anthropologists and archaeologists, the origins and evolution of the Native Americans is among the most intriguing in history. And one of the most persistent questions scientists have asked has been from where did the ancestors of the historically known Native Americans come? (At one time, a variety of imaginative theories were put forth to account for the Native Americans. Some theories suggested that they were the survivors of the lost tribes of Israel; others suggested they were the descendants of the people who survived the submergence of the "Lost Continent of Atlantis" or "Mu"; and still others saw them as the descendants of Phoenicians, Egyptians, and all other manner of folk).

Scientists have also speculated about how long the Indians have occupied the Americas. In the early centuries of the European occupation of the Americas, it was assumed that the Indians had been here for only a few hundred years. This estimate was gradually increased to over 3,000 years by the middle of the 18th century, then to 5,000 years around 1900. Then in 1926 near Folsom, New Mexico, stone spear points were found in indisputable association with extinct Ice-Age mammals, the first such find of its kind, and providing evidence that humans were in the Americas at least by the end of the Ice-Age, then believed to have end some 10,000 or more years ago. Since that time, research based on archaeological evidence has extended the time of the original presence in the Americas of the ancestors of the Native Americans to more than 15,000 years ago.

RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST

Tribal Views of Native American Origins

Who were the first Americans, and how did they get to the Americas? All Native American groups formed a traditional history which was passed down orally generation by generation. Before the coming of the Europeans and the introduction of writing systems, honored elders in every Native American community were expected to retain knowledge of the tribe's history and teach it orally to younger members of the tribe. And each nation has continued to preserve and transmit their rich tribal traditions, including creation and migration stories (like the Navajo one above). In many of the native cultures, the explanation for their origins is simplicity itself--they have always been in the Americas. They were created here and have lived here ever since. Some tribal traditions speak of ancestors springing up "out of this very ground;" others, like the Navajo (Arizona) one quoted above, speak of a time of wandering, searching for a suitable home; and still others, like that of the Haida (British Columbia), tell of humans being shaken out of a clam shell by Raven. In fact, there are as many different Native American creation stories as their are distinctively different Native American nations (for a sampling of Native American creation stories, click here). And it is this very diversity in creation stories, too many traditions at too many places, that has led many non-Indian scholars to look elsewhere for a more parsimonious answer to the question of "Who were the first Americans, and from where did they come?"

Scientific Views of Native American Origins

Until very recently, most scientists interested in the question of Native American origins gave little serious consideration to the creation stories of the native peoples, preferring instead the techniques and methods of anthropology and archaeology, along with those of geology, chemistry, botany, zoology, paleontology and a whole host of other '-ologies.'

The scientists most actively involved in questions of origins start with several assumptions:

Techniques for Analyzing Archaeological Material

One of the most contentious questions about the Native Americans is "when" did their ancestors arrive in the Americas, and archaeologists use a wide range of techniques and methods to answer this question.

THE EXOTIC ENVIRONMENT

To understand the the initial peopling of the Americas, one must have some knowledge of the geological history of North America, since it had important effects on the pioneers' experience in settling the new land.

Before 10,000 years ago, the North American environment was quite different from what it is today. The period from about 9,000 years ago to about 2,000,000 years ago is called the Pleistocene or Ice Age. During that time there were a number of successive, long periods of intensive glaciation and a worldwide lowering of temperature. These episodes were separated by interglacials, during which temperatures returned to those of today. The last glaciation, called the Wisconsin in North America, was the most severe of all, and lasted from approximately 80,000 years ago until about 9,000 years ago, when the world's glaciers began their final retreat. During the Wisconsin, huge continental glaciers formed a deep ice cap that covered much of the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, an event that had several far-reaching effects and was a major factor for the aboriginal pioneers settling the new land.

Like all previous glacial advances, the Wisconsin interrupted the hydrologic or water cycle. The natural, cyclical moisture pattern begins over the ocean where air currents pick up water vapor and transport it to land where it precipitates as rain, sleet, and snow. The moisture on the land eventually drains into rivers and returns to the oceans to continue the cycle. The formation of glaciers in the northern latitudes during the Pleistocene broke this chain. When the water vapor precipitated out as snow, instead of melting when spring came, it remained throughout the year. Year after year this same pattern held, with more and more snow piling up, and more and more water caught and locked into massive glacial complexes. One glacial complex, the Cordilleran, formed in western Canada while another, the Laurentide, formed in eastern Canada, centering on Hudson's Bay. Over thousands of years eventually forming a huge ice sheet covering most of Canada, and reaching an average height of one to two miles. Eventually, the ice sheet extended south into the Atlantic, covering Greenland, Iceland, and all but the southernmost areas of Ireland and England.

The second effect was a result of the first. The Wisconsin ice cap created the means by which the pioneers could reach the Americas. By locking up vast quantities of water, ocean levels dropped an estimated 250 to 350 feet. Both the Bering Sea and Strait are rather shallow, between 150-180 feet deep in many places. The drop in sea levels exposed a very wide and substantial land "bridge", called Beringia, across the Bering Strait, linking northeast Asia and western Alaska. At 1,000 miles wide (north to south), and stretching from Siberia to Alaska, it was really more than a bridge -- it was a subcontinent, and it lasted as long as the glaciers lasted. The drop in sea level also exposed the coastal plains of North America. Thus, families from Asia could easily cross into America, either along the southern coastline of Beringia and the coastal plains of North America, or through the Beringian interior (see How below).

The third major effect of this southward extension of the Pleistocene ice cap was to produce a very different type of climate in the rest of continental United States and Mexico from that of today. Today's interior arid plains and deserts were, in the last Ice-Age, a milder, cooler, and considerably wetter region of lush savannas (grassland), dense forest, and lakes, swamps, and bogs. Just to the south of the ice sheet's edge were the grasslands, cutting across what is now the Great Plains, the Midwest, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Further south was a broad band of boreal forest covering much of the middle part of the United States. In other words the state of Virginia then looked much like southern Labrador today. Grasslands probably covered much of the lower-altitude lands in the western United States and in Mexico

The coarse savanna grasses sustained large herds of very large herbivorous and exotic wildlife -- Columbian mammoths (elephant-like creatures with huge tusks, each weighing on the average six tons and standing nearly fourteen feet high at the shoulder), mastodons, giant bison standing 6 feet tall, and horses and camels. Added to the popoulation of browsers were formidable animals like the Dire worlf, an enormous and now extinct species, and the giant ground sloth, and numerous species of predatory cats. This remarkable mega-fauna was to perish with the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the Ice-Age.

Of course, there also were deer, elk, antelopes, beaver, rabbits, wolves, piglike peccaries, and many other mammalian species along with salmon, sturgeon, trout, pike, whales, sea otters, seals, and innumerable bird species that survive today. This was the environment that greeted many of America's first settlers.

Populating the New Land

Evidence (archaeological, linguistic, biological) presently available indicates that most ancestors of the Native Americans migrated to the American continents from somewhere in Aisa during the late Pleistocene, or Ice-Age. However, the questions of when, how, and why are still hotly debated. But what is clear is that at no time was there a large-scale or sustained migration. For the most part the pioneer settlers of the Americas came in small groups, families, and bands over a long period of time. Some came by land, others by water. The migration extended over a period that began perhaps more than 20,000 years ago and concluded as recently as ?????

Who Were the First Americans?
At present, there is little consensus among scientists regarding the question of the ultimate genetic and geographical origins of the native Americans. Until a few years ago, most scientists agreed with the statement of the remarkably prescient 16th century Jesuit missionary, José de Acosta. On the basis of the overt physical similarities between American Indians and native populations in northeast Asia, specifically people in Mongolia, Acosta suggested that the Indians ancestors came from there. In 1589 he wrote that small groups of hunters, driven from their Asiatic homeland might have followed now-extinct beasts across Asia into America. Contemporary science supports Acosta's theory, more or less.

While scientists do not doubt that the origins of the first Americans lie outside of the Americas, the old idea that populations from northeast Asia were the sole ancestors is coming increasingly under attack. Both archaeological and genetic evidence assembled over the last two decades suggests that there were mulitiple origins for the first Americans. At the end of 1999 scientists meet in California and New Mexico to mull over the implications of recently discovered or restudied ancient American skeletons, most of which date between 8,600 and 11,000 years ago. And what they discovered has shaken the foundations of the anthropological communities. Instead of resembling the historically known American Indians, the wide range of skull shapes which have come to light so far display affinities with populations as diverse as the Ainu of Japan, peoples of central Asia, Australasia, India, southwest Asia, even the Neandertals of Europe (see Ancestors of the New World Had Multiple Origins for more information about the possible Neandertal connection).

Genetic evidence presents a mixed picture regrding the origins of the First Americans. Some genetic data supports the idea of multiple migrations (perhaps as many as four or five ) of genetically distinctive people coming from several different geographical locations in central Asia, or Indian, perhaps even southwest Asia. Research carried out by Dr. Theodore G. Schurr, a geneticist at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, indicated that four genetic lineages present in Native Americans today were brought into the Americas by groups whose origins lie in four separate areas: southeast Siberia; northeast Siberia (the Amur River Basin); Lake Baikal region (inner Asia); southwest Asia. Dr. Schurr's work also suggests that there was a post-Ice Age re-expansion of ancient Beringian populations into northern North America, and that these populations were directly ancestral to modern day Koryaks, Chukchi, and Eskimos in Siberia and the northwestern tip of North America, as well as the Na-Dene Indians, including the Athapaskan speaking populations of western interior Canada and the Navajo of the southerwestern United States. For a look at some of the genetic research surrounding the origins question, go to The American Journal of Human Genetics archive page and download (as pdf files) the articles mtDNA haplogroup X: An ancient link between Europe/Western Asia and North America? and Characterization of ancestral and derived Y-chromosome haplotypes of New World native population. Also take a look at the article A single and early migration for the peopling of the Americas supported by mitochondrial DNA sequence data which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1997 Vol. 94(5) 1866-1871 which can be accessed here.

Before going on take a look at the Burke Museum's (University of Washington) "Who Are Native Americans?" website.

How Did The First People Get To The Americas?
Other questions concerning the Native Americans' origins center on the routes and transportation methods used in their long journey. Most scientists believe that the first Americans crossed into North America by either walking across a now-submerged "land bridge" which connected Alaska with Siberia during the last Ice Age, or made their way by boat, coasting along the land bridge's southern edge. There are even a few scientists, such as Bruce Bradley and the Smithsonian Institution's Dennis Stafford, who have postulated an Atlantic route.

Beringia. As noted above, at various times during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages), vast continental glaciers (in places up to two miles thick) formed over much of the northern half of North America. Each time the glacial masses reached their maximum extent (drawing massive amounts of water out of the ocean and causing a consequent lowering of sea levels worldwide, perhaps as much as 330 feet lower than today), a low-lying land bridge stood where the Bering Strait, the Anadyr Gulf, the northern Bering Sea, and the southern Arctic Ocean now separate northern Asia and Alaska. This now almost submerged landmass is known to geologists as Beringia (only parts of west and east Beringia are dry land today--in Siberia and Alaska), and most archaeologists believe that it provided the major access from Asia into the Americas for the ancestors of the first Americans.

It is known that the land bridge appeared (and disappeared) several times during the Pleistocene: from about 75,000 to 45,000 years ago, and again from about 25,000 to around 14,000 years ago, when the land bridge was exposed for the last time. The environment of Beringia ranged from tundra and steppe to woodlands to bogs to marshes, with long cold winters and continual winds, and brief, warm summers . Animals, such as mammoths, giant bixon, caribou, elk, wild sheep, and horses grazed on the Beringian plains, moving east and west in unending cycles in search of food. Since these animals had been hunted by people all across Europe and Asia since about 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, many anthropologists believe that human hunting bands (composed of several extended families) living in northeast Asia could have followed the game animals over the cold pains of tundra, grass and sage. The flesh of the game animals would have provided the pioneers with food, while their hides were a source of shelter and clothing, and their dung perhaps used in place of firewood.

At one time scientists believed that once the hunters reached Alaska, they would have been prevented from moving south into the continental United States because of the glacial complexes (in some places up to two miles thick) that stretched in an unbroken cover from the Atlantic coast to the mountain ranges of Alaska and British Columbia, and from the southern shores of the Great Lakes to the north polar regions. Then around 12,000 radiocarbon years ago the glaciers began to disappear and the bands that had been living in Alaska followed the retreating glaciers, moving eastward into central-western Canada. Once there, they moved southward through an hypothetical "ice-free corridor" that appeared between the receding glaciers of Alaska and British Columbia and those lying eastward in Canada.

The concept of an ice-free corridor is a very old one, going back more than 50 years. At one time it was envisioned as a broad, green, animal filled pathway between the glaciers, a sort of superhighway from Alaska and onto the North American Great Plains. Humans were envisoned as traveling down the east side of the Canadian Rockies into territory of the present-day (non-Alaskan) United States, then fanning out across the United States: southward along the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range, through the Great Basin of the United States, and thence through Mexico and Central America; or straight south onto the Great Plains; or eastward toward the Great Lakes, then southward. And the idea of an inland route made good sense. For example, at Meadowcroft Rockshelter evidence of human activity has been found as far back as about 14,000 years ago, and it would not be easy to get from Alaska to western Pennsylvania by boat.

However, not all scientists agree with the ice-free "corridor" hypothesis. Several scientists have argued from paleoenvironmental evidence that an ice-free corridor, if it existed, would have presented a harsh, frigid environment, often flooded, and devoid of biological resources needed for food. And geologists working in Canada have recently demonstrated that an "ice-free corridor" did not exist during the Wisconsin, thus precluding a mid-continenal route for human entry before about 11,000 radiocarbon years ago (13,020 calendar years ago).

Animated picture showing the retreat of the continental glaciers in North America from about 18,000 years ago to their disappearance at about 6,000 years agoThis map is an animation depicting the retreat of glaciers in North America - beginning about 18,000 years ago. If your browser supports animated images, you will see the glacial extent changing on the map. If your browser doesn't support animation, you can view the animation by clicking here.

NOTE: This looping GIF animation was created by the Illinois State Museum and can be found on their website

While some populations walked across the "land bridge" and perhaps down the ice-free corridor in western Canada, some theorists are beginning to consider the possibility that people migrated to the Americas by walking (or boating, see below) along the now submerged Beringia coastaline and the continental shelves of North, Central, and South America.

While older ideas stressed that the late Ice-Age glaciers extended down and into the Pacific ocean, in the past few years, scientists working along the Pacific coast of North America have been able to show that Cordilleran glacial complex which formed in western Canada may not have extend all the way into the Pacific Ocean, even during the height of the Late Wisconsin. Indeed, the southern coast of Beringia may have been a more inviting habitat than it's interior. Recent studies have revealed that interior of Beringia was a pretty boggy and soggy place. Though it contained higher elevations, one didn't walk casually dry-shod everywhere on it because it was full of marshes and bayous. But it's southern coast was a fine habitat for people, especially people accustomed to living at the edge of the sea and who knew how to harvest the sea and coastal resources. People could have walked along the shore as it then existed, pushing ever farther eastward and then southward, if only out of curiosity.

Thus an ice-free "corridor" may always have existed along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts, which would help explain why some of the oldest sites in the Americas are in South, not North America. Furthermore, deglaciation along the Northwest Coast had begun by about 14,000 years ago (16,800 calendar years ago) and was sufficiently advanced to enable humans using watercraft to colonize coastal areas by 13,000 years ago (15,350 calendar years ago). At Prince of Wales Island off the southern Alaskan coast, excavations in bear dens have revealed the remains of land and sea mammals, birds, and fish dating to this time, demonstrating sufficient resources existed along the coast for people to have survived.

It also has been suggested that some of the first immigrants into the Americas came by boat. It is known that by at least 30,000 years ago people were living in Australia. Since Australia it was never attached to any continental land mass during the Ice Age, the first Australians must have possessed boats. Somewhat similarly, people living on the shores of the Mediterranean were being to occupy various islands there by at least 18,000 years ago. Thus, if there were "boat people" living along the shores of northeast Asia toward the end of the last Ice Age, they would have had a well signed waterway into the Americas: from Kamchatka in Siberia the route is still marked out today by the Aleutian Islands. When the water was 300 feet lower, those islands would have been almost like the Florida keys. Fishers with a taste for aquatic birds and mammals could have boated along that route long before their hunting cousins spread up into northeastern Siberia and crossed into Alaska through the Beringian interior.

The problem with tracing "boat people" or shore-dwelling walkers is that the evidence of their passing would lie along shores that exist no more, drowned under hundreds of feet of ocean and mud by seas rising as the glaciers melted. Thus, we must infer movement along the now drowned coast from archaeological remains from several places: Santa Rosa Island off the southern California coast; Prince of Wales Island off the southern Alaskan coast; and Monte Verde, a 13,000 years old site in South America.

Other scientists have proposed a migration of boat people from Europe, basing their hypothesis on what they perceive as shared technologies and tool types between Clovis and Solutrean people who lived in France around 18,000 years ago. Presumably, European boat people would have used much the same route that the Norse (Vikings) did thousands or years later (around 1,100 years ago), when they settled in Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and the northeastern U.S. (For a fuller account of this thypothesis see Scientific American Discovering Archaeology's article The Solutrean Solution).

When Did People First Arrive in the Americas?
Establishing a time-frame for the earliest migrations into the Americas has proved to be a very difficult problem and remains one of archaeology's thorniest problems. At present, archaeologists are divided into two diametrically opposed camps. On one side of the time question are those whom their opponents have labelled the "Clovis Firsters," a reference to the Clovis culture, the first fully accepted late Ice-Age culture of North America, as well as one of the best-dated and most wide-spread. At one time archaeologists believe that the Clovis culture spanned thousands of years. However, it is now known that the Clovis era was relatively short-lived, roughly from 11,400 to 10,900 radiocarbon years ago (13,325 - 12,975 calendar years). The Clovis Firsters find the evidence for any occupation of the Americas older than about 11,500 radiocarbon years extremely shaky on many grounds, and believe humans first arrived in the Americas not more than a few hundred years before the appearance of Clovis.

On the other hand there are those who point to sites in South America and in the eastern portion of the United States suggesting human entry into the Americas sometime before 15,000 calendar years ago, and perhaps before the last glacial maximum some 20,000 calendar years ago. One of the most compelling sites for early entrance is Meadowcroft Rockshelter, a multicomponent site located southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The site's excavator, Dr. James Adovasio, has documented a nearly continuous human occupation sequence from the Iroquoian Seneca of the early centuries of English and American occupation all the way back to Clovis times. He claims there also is clear and compelling evidence of human-made fire pits and stone tools close to 14,000 years old (16,800 calendar years ago).

Meadowcroft is not the only site in North America to produce data on pre-Clovis. Wilson Butte Cave in south-central Idaho has two radiocarbon dates of 14,500 and 15,000 years ago on bone associated with several stone artifacts. And at Pendejo Cave in New Mexico

In South America, archaeogical investigations have revealed the presence of well-adapted populations with varied subsistence patterns who occupied all major environmental zones of the contient by at least 11,000 radiocarbon years ago (13,020 calendar years) -- before Clovis had spread throughout North America. For example, the archaeologists Junius Bird conclusively demonstrated that people were living near Magellan Strait, the "uttermost part of the earth," more than 11,000 calendar years ago, making them contemporary, in part with Clovis. Along the Caribbean coastal zone of Venezuela, people were hunting horse, mastodon, and deer by at least 13,000 years ago (15,350 calendar years ago), as evidenced by the site of Taima-taima. Pachamachay, a cave in the Andes, has yielded evidence of camelid hunting at 11,800 years ago (13,800 calendar years ago), while at the Peruvian coastal site of Quebrada Jaguay archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a specialized maritime economy dating back to at least 11,105 years ago (13,025 calendar years). And at the site of Caverna da Pedra Pintada, deep in the tropical rain forest of the Amazon Basin, Dr. Anna Roosevelt has found evidence of a foraging economy dating back to at least 11,100 radiocarbon years ago (13,025 calendar years).

In addition to these sites, there are numerous other South American sites with dates to Clovis age or several millenia earlier. But the most compelling pre-Clovis site is Monte Verde, a creekside habitation site in south-central Chile. At some point after the inhabitants left the site, rising creek waters covered the site, laying down a deposit of peat which preserved a wide range of items: animal bones, wood planks, stakes, and animal hides used to cover rectangular shaped living structures, fireplace ash, a human footprint, and the remains of over 70 kinds of edible plants. A battery of radiocarbon dates puts people at this creekside campsite around 12,500 years ago (14,850 calendar years).

Whether the earliest people to enter the Americas came by boat or on foot, whether they came in one wave or in many separate movements spread over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, whether the came along the coast or through an inland ice-free corridor, there is no question that by 11,500 radiocarbon years ago, humans were in America well south of Beringia.


What's In A Name?

I have chosen to use the term Native Americans when referring to ALL the peoples who resided in the Americas before the coming of the Europeans. My reasons for this are based on the fact that there are TWO distinctively different populations of Native Americans:

 

Next Destination?

 

Native Peoples of North America

Updated: 3 January 2007
by
crsmith