Friday, February 23, 2007

Who were the first people in the Americas?

Perhaps you saw the show on PBS the other night? If not, here is a little extra info [Click here for a Reuters article]

I find it impossible to watch or read about this topic without wanting to heap scorn on the professionals. They just are not satisified unless they have a monolithic and simple-minded picture to work from. It took generations to move the date of earliest Americans back from 2K years to 5K years. Then they found clovis spearpoints and decided Clovis was first at ~13K years ago. Let's look at some of the "Clovis First" Dogma:
- One wave of migration populating the new world
- All walking across the Bering Land Bridge from west to east.
- Killer hunters eliminating all the big game animals in [according to the PBS show] "a few hundred years"
- All genetically identical
- All speaking one language
- All stone tools are spearpoints
On pure logical grounds this ought to be all wrong. But lets look at the evidence:
One wave of migration: There has never been any evidence for this simplistic concept. [And anyone who tries quoting Occam's Razor on this topic understands neither - Occam does not justify over-simplification based on no evidence]. Also this idea that Native Americans are one people (as opposed to a huge variety of different people) seems to be someting akin to "all Chinese look alike". A wee sniff of prejudice may be operating.

All walking west to east across the Bering Land Bridge: There has never been much evidence that anybody crossed the Bering Land Bridge; in either direction. To paraphrase Dennis Stafford of the Smithsonian, "the amount of Clovis material found at the western end of the Bering Land Bridge would not fill a shoe box". So what this suggests, if anything, is that the direction of travel was EAST-to-WEST. Did anyone consider the hypothesis that northern Siberia was populated from the Americas?

And what is your problem with the idea of using boats? Boats took the first Australians to Australia at least 60K years ago. Depending on who you want to believe, Homo Erectus may have been present on the Island of Flores- in which case Homo Erectus used boats. Of course by now Dennis Stafford has come out proposing early Europeans came to America by boats (why not the other direction?). Many people have a hard time understanding that the edge of the ice is a very rich ecosystem, easy to live on. Instead of travelling along the edge of the ice, people probably were just living there - and camping occasionally to the left or to the right. On the topic of boats, the PBS show quoted someone as saying there is "no evidence of deep sea fishing". Well that is not right, the "Red Paint" people deep sea fished (for swordfish) about 8K years ago - and it is not hard to push that back a few K years into the Clovis period. [But let's not get confused with a second group of people and a different style of spearpoint.] By the way, Ted Timreck says he was the person who called Dennis Stafford's attention to the similarity of Clovis and Solutrean stone working techniques and the possibility of travelling in boats. Of course NEARA people have been talking about boats for two generations.

Killer hunters, quickly de-populating the Americas of all big game, in a "few hundred years": The facts are that (1) the large "mega fauna" animals disappeared gradually over the last 30K years of the ice age. Saber tooth tigers vanished something like 16K years ago. (2) Many non-game species dis-appeared over the same period: types of owls, types of mice, you name it. Again, the warming trend and melting of glacial snow did accelerate towards the ends of the ice age, with lots of complex causes, possibly including human, and with that kind of major environmental stresses and cataclysms (like glacially trapped water suddenly breaking the ice jam and flooding off down the Mississipi valley - killing millions of animals and leaving mountains of festering meat out in the sun) it is to be expected that there would be stresses to the food chain, disease, you name it.

Genetic and Linguistic evidence has a funny way of changing so as to always agree with what the archeologists are claiming at the time [not so for geology or mammalian biology- - scientists from those fields have been critical of the "Clovis First" doctrine for a long time]. Both 'sciences' rely on similar attempts to create family trees along with estimates for duration between branching events. To their detriment these sciences also rely on automatic software tools for generating the family tree structures which they analyze. I do not know enough abut how they calibrate the duration between branching events; but I do know a lot about the software tools for generating trees and I can tell you someting the users of this software do not know (and it is probably a well kept secret). Namely that with a small sample of evidence to build a tree, a single change in information can dramatically change the structure of the tree - those "trees" are badly sensitive to initial conditions. Here is a rule of thumb - you need about 10 samples per branch event - to have a robust tree. So they need samples of thousands of different Native American populations to justfy their trees. And how many sample did they use? Ten or twenty! To exaggerate for empahis: if you sample ten individuals and conclude that there were three languages families, then you are naive. The worst example of this that I saw was an author called Cavallo Sforzi ("The Human Diaspora"). I have to say that I wish they would do the job right - try sampling ALL known Native American Indian groups. Oh and, bye the way, stop connecting two points on the globe, through some genetic or linguistic similarity of the people at these two points - and trying to draw conclusions about which direction the "migration" occurred in. Genetic/Linguistic similarity does not imply a direction of travel. Get over it, and realize that the evidence supports claiming American Indians migrated to Europe just as well as it supports motion in the other direction.

All stone tools are spearpoints: actually most of those are probably knives and a simple glance under the scanning electron microscope would settle the question. What is the "use wear" evidence on many Clovis points? Were they part of a thrown projectile, a stabbing weapong, or a cutting tool? I wonder why this is not common knowledge? Could it be that the information does not fit the simple picture? I do not trust the experts.


So why would "experts" believe such nonsense? Why do they routinely and systematically (a) over-simplify; (b) deny early dates in favor or more recent ones for the peopling of the Americas; (c) invariably assume the contact came from Asia (and only rarely and recently from Europe); (d) that Native Americans are one single group of people?

I think the answers is somewhat sad and certainly angering: it is Euro-centrism and a deep-seated and basically negative assumptions (i.e. prejudice) about American Indians.
Why "One wave of migration populating the new world"? Because the Indians are only one people (they all look alike right?)
Why "All walking across the Bering Land Bridge"? Because they are not smart enough to use boats. Why "West to east"? Because the idea Native Americans cannot be related to the Europeans (they look Chinese right?) is abhorrent to the archeologists, and possibly to the Indians as well.
Why "Killer hunters eliminating all the big game animals"? Because it is a compelling and simple-minded story, even if it is fictional. Maybe it is pride at being human or maybe it is another subtle insult to the Native Americans - too stupid to control their urge to kill, devastating the environment.
Why "All genetically identical, speaking the same language" - more minimizing of the capabilities and variety of American Indians.
Recommended Reading: Vine Deloria's "Red Earth, White Lies".

1 comment :

Highland Boy said...

I read a couple of Deloria's books over the winter and also can highly recommend them. I didn't find "Red Earth, White Lies," nearly as incendiary as the title might imply, perhaps because his thinking falls in line with my own to a large degree: skeptical of the Bering Strait theory in explaining all the civilizations of North and South America, dismissive of New Age fantasies that try to hijack Indian spirituality or cosmogony and some archaeologist's blind infatuation with science and technology.

I think Deloria's hypothesis that there were four original 'tribes' if you will, who were truly indigenous to pre-historic North America and that one of them was 'white' is the 800 pound gorilla of anthropology, if you pardon the pun.