The Current Debate about the Origins of the Paleoindians of America

By Klein, Herbert S.; Schiffner, Daniel C. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Current Debate about the Origins of the Paleoindians of America


Klein, Herbert S., Schiffner, Daniel C., Journal of Social History


In recent years, contributions from the fields of archeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and genetics have revolutionized the study of the origins, timing and process of human settlement in America. This re-thinking of the origins question has been based on a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject. Not only have traditional beliefs been questioned, but a far more sophisticated body of new materials has emerged to analyze the basic issues involved in determining the origins of human settlement in the Americas. From dental remains, the physical anthropologists have been able to obtain specimens that are both highly resistant to post-mortem alterations and directly related to population-specific evolutionary changes. At the same time, the study of gene frequencies and changing distributions of genetic markers among Native American populations has produced new data on historical settlement and migration patterns, which often challenge the archaeological evidence of early human migrations. In turn, this new research, much of which has occurred only in the last twenty years, has itself led to new debates and the emergence of new questions. The aim of this essay is to provide the reader with a brief guide to this literature and the questions that have been raised.

The idea that the Western Hemisphere was first peopled by a migration of Asians who reached the New World via a land bridge across the Bering Straits was proposed as early as the 16th century by the Jesuit chronicler Padre Jose de Acosta. This notion did not become the dominant hypothesis, however, until the early 20th century. (1) Until well into the 19th century there was constant speculation about various migrations of Old World peoples who were supposed to have built the temples and mounds found all over the Americas. In the early decades of the 20th century, American archeologists finally began to adopt the 19th-century European model of stratigraphic superposition, or the process of dating based on specimen location in geological strata. This was the first coherent dating method available to researchers, and among the first such studies were those by Manuel Gamio in the Valley of Mexico in 1911. By the 1930s, both stratigraphic and seriation analysis, or the dating based on culture and era-specific pottery styles, had become the norm throughout the Americas, and the results quickly showed the coherent evolution of American societies. (2) Carbon-14 analysis was also added after 1949 to date artifacts emerging from the systematic exploration of numerous sites from Alaska to Patagonia.

Although some 19th century findings had suggested the existence of Neanderthal man in the Western Hemisphere, this evidence was rejected by the 1910s, and since then it is generally accepted that only full Homo sapiens sapiens (or anatomically modern man) migrated to the New World. (3) By the 1920s, the discovery of unique stone "Clovis point" projectiles in Clovis, New Mexico and the appearance of these as well as Folsom projectiles in kill sites near large mammal bones from northern Alaska to Guatemala, suggested an original big game hunting culture that was deemed typical of all early man. This Clovis culture was assumed to have lasted from about 12,000 BP (years before present) to about 10,000 BP. A consensus emerged by the 1930s, which lasted to the 1980s, that Asian migrants came in small hunting and gathering bands and were primarily big game hunters. It was even suggested that these humans wiped out the giant mammals in the Americas, though the extinction of even those animals that were not eaten by man suggests a far more complex cause for the disappearance of late Pleistocene mammals. (4)

Based on geological evidence and the discovery of human remains, many assumed that Homo sapiens sapiens arrived in America from Asia about 12,000 BP when the Bering land bridge was open in one of its periodical dry land phases. This assumption was rooted in the idea that glaciers blocked these early hunters' land route to the south from Alaska until the last ice age ended, at about this time. …

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