American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Bering Strait Theory

According to the Bering Strait migration theory, the people now known as American Indians originated in Asia and wandered into the western hemisphere by way of a land bridge that once joined the eastern reaches of Siberia to western Alaska. This belief is now anthropological orthodoxy, taught as "fact" to schoolchildren and assumed virtually as self-evident "truth" in popular consciousness. The accepted timing of this presumed migration has shifted over time. During the first half of the twentieth century, it was widely believed to have begun no more than 4,000 years ago, although "reputable" scholars preferred the range of two to three millennia. Beginning in the late 1940s, it was declared that the crossing might have commenced as many as 15,000 years earlier. By the early 1990s reports noted that research in genetics and linguistics revealed a need to consider a number of other possible migration routes and a longer time line (some researchers have suggested as many as 30,000 years).

With the exception of a few marginalized academic "mavericks," the only significant resistance to the land bridge migration hypothesis comes from the Native North Americans who continue to embrace the origin stories of their own peoples' traditional understandings. They are regularly dismissed as adhering to a primitive mythic/religious worldview, long since displaced by the presumptively superior methods of Western science. However, the migration theory itself has not been supported by scientific evidence, but instead is consistently tailored to meet the religious and/or political needs of Euro-American society.

Columbus's "discovery" of the western hemisphere and its large human population was difficult to reconcile with the Christian origin story of human descent from Adam and Eve. While some attempted to avoid the problem by classifying American Indians as nonhuman, most Western theologians preferred to believe that Indians were the progeny of the lost tribes of Israel. In 1650, rabbinical scholar Israel ben Mannasseh argued that Tartar migrants, with Jewish tribes among them, crossed an ancient land bridge now covered by what he termed the Strait of Anian sometime after the Assyrian conquest of 721 BCE. The "lost tribe" theory was embraced by American religious leaders from the Puritan Cotton Mather and the Quaker William Penn to Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church.

Others, such as Thomas Jefferson, abandoned the theory of Judaic origins for the more "scientific" notion, also embedded in ben Mannasseh's thesis, that the earliest migrations across the land bridge were composed primarily of "Mongoloid stock." This, according to Jefferson, explained the resemblance between American Indians and the peoples of eastern Asia. Jefferson's motives were secular rather than religious; he hoped to reinforce the still-prevalent argument that Indians were no more genuinely indigenous to this land than the later arriving European settlers. A fervent advocate of human liberty who owned hundreds of slaves, Jefferson is not easy to read as an archaeologist. As a student of indigenous languages, he sometimes maintained that their number and complexity indicated a great antiquity for Native American cultures.

The immigrants came up with all manner of explanations for the human presence in the Americas. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque claimed to have discovered and deciphered what he called the Walam Odum, wooden tablets said to contain hieroglyphs depicting the settlement of North America by Lenape (Delaware) Indians, who crossed the frozen Bering Strait from Asia approximately 3,600 years ago. Since exposed as a crude hoax, it was defended by eminent archaeologists, ethnologists, linguists, and historians as recently as 1987.

In fact, the Bering Strait migration theory is not only unsupported but countered by available scientific evidence. One major problem is chronology, for until recently Western science insisted— and the belief is still prevalent—that modern humans did not appear in Europe until some 40,000 years ago. If so, it was unlikely that they could have spread across Asia to the far reaches of Siberia and then into North America until, at the earliest, some 20,000 years ago. In keeping with this theory, as late as the 1940s, scientists such as Ales Hrdlicka, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum, insisted that humans had inhabited the Americas for no more than 2,000 or 3,000 years.

The theory disregarded several important finds: the 1926 discovery near Folsom, New Mexico, of projectiles embedded in the bones of bison that had been extinct for some 10,000 years; the 1932 discovery of projectile points near Clovis, Texas, beneath a layer of earth containing Folsom points and lodged in the skeletons of wooly mammoths and camels extinct for twelve millennia; and the 1931 recovery of human skeletal remains in deposits from the last Ice Age.

Subsequently, however, geologists realized that the land bridge over which the migration supposedly took place would have been exposed only during an Ice Age, the most recent of which ended 10,000 years ago. In 1948 University of California anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber, who had replaced Hrdlicka as the "dean of the profession," was forced to revise anthropological orthodoxy, but he conceded a maximal date of human occupancy of only 12,000—then 15,000—years. Well before then, however, another eminent anthropologist and geologist had concluded that the "San Diego" skulls, discovered in 1926, were well over 40,000 years old. As radiocarbon and other dating techniques have evolved, human remains and artifacts found near Sunnyvale, California, and El Bosque, Nicaragua, have been dated to 70,000 years, and stone tools were found in San Diego's Mission Valley in a geological stratum more than 100,000 years old. By the mid-1960s, Louis Leakey, discoverer of Australopithecines, the oldest known protohuman remains, was convinced that evidence of even older sites, perhaps even the oldest of those occupied by fully modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), might be found in North America.

According to geologists, the most recent time when the whole of Beringia was above water lasted from approximately 35,000 to 10,000 years ago, but the conditions permitting human transit, if they existed at all, were limited to the period of maximum glaciation, approximately 25,000 to 15,000 years before the present. This renders problematic not only the evidence of human habitation that significantly predates the 15,000-year maximum conceded by anthropologists, but also the locations and nature of these findings. How did people who first entered Alaska perhaps 15,000 years ago manage to establish themselves as far south as New Mexico or as far east as Pennsylvania at approximately the same time? How could they reach sites in present-day Venezuela, Brazil, and Chile more than 14,000 years ago? Evidence indicates that Fells Cave near Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of South America, was inhabited about 8,500 years ago, and Monte Verde in Chile was occupied at least 13,000 years ago. In fact, several sites in South America predate Clovis in North America.

A related difficulty is raised by the Koster site in Illinois. While only approximately 8,000 years old, it clearly hosted a sizable and long-settled agrarian culture. How did the descendents of the primitive hunter-gatherers who are supposed to have crossed the Bering land bridge accomplish this in just a few thousand years, when it is generally accepted that it took the sedentary cultures of Mesopotamia about thirty millennia to do the same?

The Bering Strait thesis also presumes dispersal from the far northwest toward the south and east, yet many sites along the southern Atlantic seacoast substantially predate those in New England and eastern Canada. As a rule, coastal sites tend to be older than those in the interior. Even in Beringia, the oldest recorded site of human occupancy in eastern Siberia, is located at Lake Baikal, about 2,500 miles from the Strait. It appears to be an isolated and anomalous settlement, reliably dated at a little less than 20,000 years. On the American side, the most proximate site is the Old Crow/Bluefish Cave complex in the western Yukon, where there is evidence of numerous settlements. By some estimates, that area was occupied at least 24,800 years ago. If one applies the scientific method of proceeding from facts to conclusions, the available evidence indicates that, if anyone walked across an Ice Age Beringian land bridge, it was indigenous Americans moving into Asia rather than vice versa.

Another major difficulty with the land bridge theory relates to environmental conditions. Unless the migrants walked across 2,500 miles of open ice that was up to two miles thick, they would have followed an ice-free corridor approximately along the course of the McKenzie River today. If such a corridor existed, it would have opened up at the end of the last Ice Age, too late to account for most of the sites mentioned. Moreover, climatic evidence indicates that in such a passage the air temperature would have been about 20 degrees colder than the surface of the glacial plateau.

And then there is the question of geography. As Vine Deloria, Jr., has pointed out, to even reach Beringia from the most proximate sites of habitation in Siberia, people would have had to cross two significant mountain ranges to arrive at the thousand or so miles of barren marshlands constituting the strait, after which they would have encountered the numerous mountain ranges that cut across present-day Alaska, both above and below the Arctic circle. The question becomes not so much whether this could have been done, but why anyone would have bothered. The standard response is that the "paleoliths" endured such hardships eventually to feed on the "megafauna" flourishing in the more temperate regions of Ice Age North America. Just how would Stone Age residents of the Asian steppes have known that an abundance of large game animals flourished 5,000 miles away, over a dozen mountain ranges, across a swampy land bridge, and through a frigid corridor? The anthropological establishment responds that the megafauna were already using the Beringian land bridge to migrate from North America into Asia, traversing that same daunting geography in the opposite direction. In other words, "science" tells us that humans could have gone in only one direction, but the mammoths could have, and apparently wanted to, move in the other.

Some scholars have pointed out the implausibility of these scenarios. One anthropologist proposes that people crossed the Bering Strait from Asia, then dispersed along both the western and the eastern seaboards. This is more consistent with the datings in coastal regions but does not explain why anyone would have traversed 3,000 miles across the North American Arctic before turning south. Others have speculated that people migrated along the southernmost edge of the land bridge, then moved south along the Pacific coastline before turning east. This avoids reliance on the theory of an ice-free corridor and allows dating back to perhaps 35,000 years.

The perceived need to restrict the inhabitation of the Americas to a very recent period also has been eased by the recently emerging consensus that Homo sapiens sapiens may have lived in the Middle East and southern Africa for at least seventy, rather than merely forty millennia. We may be on the verge of yet another revision of Western scientific orthodoxy that accounts for some—although by no means all—of the inconsistencies in the data but maintains the political utility of the Bering Strait migration theory.

Unlike these constantly shifting and generally unsupported "scientific" theories, indigenous people have always had explanations of their origins in the Americas that exhibit both internal integrity and consistency. Because anthropologists always begin with the presumption that people could not possibly have been in this hemisphere for so long, they have dismissed the many vibrant accounts shared by native wisdom keepers of their ancestors' interactions with giant beavers, stiff-legged bears, and hairy elephants as myths and legends. However, as evidence from other disciplines has accumulated to support a much longer occupancy, these legends been slowly accepted as more literal accounts.

The Hopi Four Worlds chronicle, for example, depicts the Hopi as having lived through ages of fire, water, and ice before the beginning of the present era. Slowly, western science has acknowledged that they may have been here during the last Ice Age, perhaps even during the extensive flooding that ended some 25,000 years ago. Nonetheless, accounts of the Hopi experience of a world of fire are still dismissed as preposterous. Other peoples, including the Klamaths, Nisquallys, and Wishrams in the Northwest, have oral histories with detailed accounts of volcanic activity in the region, including the formation of Crater Lake and the last eruption of Mount Hood. These accounts were uniformly dismissed until recent geological studies revealed that the antiquity of such volcanic events have in some cases been significantly overestimated. The traditional understanding of the Lakota that they originated in the Black Hills, the Cherokee accounts of emerging from water, and the Tohono O'odham descriptions of mysterious dinosaurlike creatures have invariably been disparaged or ignored, while "scientific" findings are never subject to corroboration by way of their consistency with the knowledge of indigenous people.

There is much that we do not know about the origins of humanity. What is clear, however, is that rigid adherence to the latest catechisms of purported scientific "truth" only prevents us from being able to understand why, for example, ancient petroglyphs in Arizona's Havasupai Canyon depict the African ibex or the oldest recorded sample of corn pollen, estimated to be 80,000 years old, was discovered 200 feet below Mexico City. Accepting the growing weight of evidence that Native Americans did not necessarily come from somewhere else—not to mention the evidence that American Indians had domesticated dogs 30,000 years ago— might help explain why agriculture appears to have originated in this hemisphere. In light of the dramatic gaps in contemporary theories of human evolution, the questions raised by the notion of an American genesis based on some sort of "multiregional evolution" are no more daunting than those created by the Bering Strait migration theory.

Ward Churchill


Further Reading
Biolsi, Thomas, and Larry J. Zimmerman, eds. 1997. Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Carter, George F. 1980. Earlier Than You Think: A Personal View of Man in America. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.; Ceram, C. W. 1972. First American: A Story of North American Archaeology. New York: Mentor Books.; Churchill, Ward. 2005. "About That Bering Strait Land Bridge... A Study in the Falsity of 'Scientific Truth.'" In J. Lehmann, ed., "Social Theory as Politics in Knowledge," Current Perspectives in Social Theory 23: 368.; Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1995. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. New York: Scribner’s.; Durham, Jimmie. 1993. A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics. London: Kala Press.; Friend, Tim. 1993. "Genetic Detectives Trace the Origin of First Americans." USA Today (September 3).; Goodman, Jeffrey. 1981. American Genesis: The American Indian and the Origins of Modern Man. New York: Summit Books.; Hopkins, David M., ed. 1967. The Bering Land Bridge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.; Kuhn, Thomas. 1967. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; MacGowen, Kenneth, and Joseph A. Hester, Jr. 1962. Early Man in the New World, 2nd ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.; Oestreicher, David M. 1996. "Unraveling the Walam Odum." Natural History 14 (October): 14–21.; Sanders, Ronald. 1992. Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism, 2nd ed. New York: HarperPerennial.; West, Frederick Hadleigh, ed. 1996. American Beginnings: The Prehistory and Paleontology of Beringia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 

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