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Where did America’s First People come from and When? 13,000 Years ago?

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Butch McIntosh wears traditional Native American regalia at the Pow Wow of Champions on the fairgrounds in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday Aug. 11, 2007. VOA
  • The first European explorers to reach the Americas looked to the Bible to explain the origins of the people they encountered and misnamed “Indians.”
  • Excavations in the 1970s pushed the date even further back, to as much as 16,000 years ago
  • Archaeologist James Adovasio dated artifacts found at Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter to be up to 16,000 years old, to harsh criticism

US, June 20, 2017: It’s one of the most contentious debates in anthropology today: Where did America’s first people come from — and when? The general scientific consensus is that a single wave of people crossed a long-vanished land bridge from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. But some Native Americans are irked by the theory, which they say is simplistic and culturally biased.

The first European explorers to reach the Americas looked to the Bible to explain the origins of the people they encountered and misnamed “Indians.” Biblical tradition holds that humans were created some 4,000 years ago and that all men descend from Adam — including indigenous people whom Europeans regarded as primitive.

Indians in Virginia. Engraving by Theodore de Bry, 1590, based on a watercolor by John White in 1585.
Indians in Virginia. Engraving by Theodore de Bry, 1590, based on a watercolor by John White in 1585. VOA

“Dominant science believed in a concept of superiority,” said Alexander Ewen, a member of the Purepecha Nation and author of the “Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century.”

“And that created an idea that either people were genetically inferior or that there were stages of civilization, and Indians were at a lower stage,” he said.

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Since “primitives” weren’t sophisticated enough to have sailed the oceans, early scientists concluded Indians had reached North America by some unknown land route. They found their answer in the Bering Strait.

Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown boarder depicting Beringia, where archaeolosits believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.
Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown boarder depicting Beringia, where archaeolosits believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service. VOA

Ewen says that theory cemented into dogma and persists to this day, even in the face of new discoveries and technology that suggests Indians arrived much earlier and by different routes.

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“In the first place, it’s simplistic,” said Ewen. “The people in this hemisphere were — and are — extremely diverse, more than any other place in the world.”

Chipping away at a theory

In the 1930s, scientists examined a pile of mammoth bones in Clovis, N.M., where they found distinctive spear points. Since then, tens of thousands of “Clovis points” have been found across North America and as far south as Venezuela. Scientists decided the Clovis people must have been America’s first peoples, arriving 13,000 years ago.

Excavations in the 1970s pushed the date even further back, to as much as 16,000 years ago. Archaeologist James Adovasio dated artifacts found at Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter to be up to 16,000 years old, to harsh criticism.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pa., where archaeologists found artifacts dating back 16,000 years.
The Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pa., where archaeologists found artifacts dating back 16,000 years. VOA

Other branches of science have weighed in: In 1998, University of California-Berkeley linguist Johanna Nichols argued that it would have taken up to 50,000 years for a single language to diversify into the many languages spoken by modern Native American groups. That meant ancient Indians would have to have arrived 19,000 years ago.

Geologists have complicated matters by suggesting that the Bering Strait wasn’t passable until 10 or 12,000 years ago. This gave way to theories that early humans might have sailed down the Pacific coast into the New World.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Harvard University geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples in Australia and New Guinea.

An elderly member of Brazil's Surui Nation. Researchers found the Surui bear a genetic relationship to indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.
An elderly member of Brazil’s Surui Nation. Researchers found the Surui bear a genetic relationship to indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea. VOA

In the past decade, Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Dennis Stanford met scathing criticism for suggesting Stone Age Europeans paddled across the Atlantic thousands of years before Columbus. In April of this year, researchers in California analyzed crushed mastodon bones they said were butchered by humans 130,000 years ago, a theory the bulk of scientists, including Adavasio, rejects – not because it’s not possible, he stipulates, but because the data isn’t conclusive.

Native American accounts

Should science consider the origin beliefs of tribes themselves?

Montana’s Blackfoot tradition holds that the first Indians lived on the other side of the ocean, but their creator decided to take them to a better place. “So he brought them over the ice to the far north,” the account reads.

The Hopi people of Arizona say their ancestors had to travel through three worlds, finally crossing the ocean eastward to a new and final new world. And Oklahoma’s Tuskagee people believe the “Great Spirit” chose them to be the first people to live on the earth.

File--This July 23, 2008, photo was taken from inside the Paisley Caves near Paisley, Ore., where archaeologists found stone tools and human DNA dating back more than 13,000 years, evidence humans settled North America earlier than previously thought.
File–This July 23, 2008, photo was taken from inside the Paisley Caves near Paisley, Ore., where archaeologists found stone tools and human DNA dating back more than 13,000 years, evidence humans settled North America earlier than previously thought. VOA

Stories like these aren’t given much weight by science, said Joe Watkins, supervisory anthropologist at the National Park Service and a member of the Choctaw Nation.

“They are generally believed to be anecdotal,” he said. “The deep time depth and the possibility of multiple interpretations seem to make scientists uncomfortable.”

That isn’t to say Watkins believes every tribal tradition is “true.”

“But I do believe most of them carry within them kernels of truth of use to researchers. It seems imprudent to dismiss any possible line of evidence,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

Native Americans Flutist Shares Stories and Music of Ojibwe People

Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe.

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Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2019. Photo by Mike Garcia. VOA

These days, Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe. But few belong to any tribe or nation, something that troubles Darren Thompson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin and an award-winning flutist.

This week, he is performing at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York, sharing stories and music that speak to the history, trauma and resilience of the Ojibwe people. And of course, to the instrument itself, which the Ojibwe call “bibigwan.”

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Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson . Photo by Matt Kelly. VOA

“The Native American Flute’ is the name of the instrument, so anybody who picks one up and plays it can call himself a Native American Flute Player,'” said Thompson.

Technically, playing an inauthentic flute violates the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act, passed in 1990 to ban the sale of goods falsely labeled “Native American. But there is nothing to stop non-Native performers from falsely claiming Native American heritage.

“It’s not so much the fact that they are playing the flute that bothers me. It’s the fact that a lot of them are non-Native and try to play the part of a Native, wearing what they think is Indian’ attire. It’s offensive, and it perpetuates the stereotype that Native Americans are still running around as they did in the past,” said Thompson.

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A group of citizens of former Czechoslovakia portraying Native Americans at an “Indianistik” meeting in 1988. Indian hobbyism–the desire to dress or live like traditional Native Americans–has always been popular in Eastern Europe. VOA

‘Singing trees’

Thompson grew up hearing traditional Ojibwe music, but it wasn’t an important part of his life until he left the reservation.

“I went to Marquette University, where there weren’t any other Native kids,” he said. “I was still in Wisconsin, but it was a foreign environment.”

Homesickness led him to the music of Navajo/Ute flutist Raymond Carlos Nakai, which evoked memories of his childhood.

“One of the first stories I ever heard came from the elders, who talked about trees,” Thompson said. “I remember them saying trees sing to us and give us guidance.I think I was four, and that story came to mind 15 years later when I first heard Nakai playing.”

It was then, he said, he understood what the elders had been trying to tell him: Trees do sing — through flutes carved from their wood.

Thompson bought his first flute from a non-Native vendor at a cultural festival. He taught himself to play, and as he learned, he felt moved to connect to the music of his ancestors — music that preceded government assimilation policies that nearly killed off the Ojibwe language, culture and religious traditions.

“I went out to museums to research actual instruments that were seized 200 years ago and taken into collections,” he said. “Store-bought “Native” flutes are similar in construction, but they are tuned to a minor Western music scale. But an authentic one would be tuned to the maker himself.”

Traditionally, players carved their own instruments from a single piece of wood — cedar, for example, or ash. Each flute would have two chambers, which allowed the player to breathe, Thompson explained.

No two instruments would have been alike.

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Nineteenth Century Ojibwe flute, part of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y. VOA

“The length of the instrument would be the distance from that person’s armpit to his first knuckle,” he said. “The width would be the same as the width of his thumb. Even the spacing of the finger holes is calibrated to the player’s body.”

The number of open holes carved into the flute varies.Thompson owns several flutes, some he made himself and others custom made. Some have only four holes, which can produce eight notes. Others have five and six holes, allowing for greater range in melody.

The result is a sound unique to each player — a deep and clear tone that Thompson says “touches a lot of people.”

He has wanted to perform at NMAI for at least a decade.

“NMAI has a program called The Art of Storytelling.” My performance is unique, in that I try to reintroduce stories and music from history. Songs I’ve learned that were recorded in the early 1900s, before our culture got erased,” Thompson said.

The stories don’t just speak to what was lost, but what has survived. And some carry messages that are universal:

“If you take all the four-leggeds, those who walk on all fours, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take all the winged ones, those that fly in the sky, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

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“If you take away all the plants from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away all the water, and those that live in water, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away man from the Earth, life on Earth would flourish.” (VOA)