Were Humans Really in America 100,000 Years Before We Thought?

Interesting commentary on the politics regarding the origin of the first “settlers” of North America:

In the United States, the lightning rod in this conversation has been the racial identity of those people who are supposed to have pre-dated Native Americans. In Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture, Smithsonian archaeologists Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley argued that almost 15,000 years before native Americans arrived in the Americas from Siberia (approximately 13,000-14,000 years ago), the North West was populated by early Europeans.

Their argument is based on the similarities between American Clovis stone points and French Solutrean points. The similarities between the two were first noted in the 1970s, but scholars could not account for the chronological distance between the evidence, the lack of evidence for maritime activity during this period, and the absence of non-technological cultural transfer from France to the Americas.

The lack of evidence did not prevent Kyle Bristow, a lawyer and former Michigan State University student known for inviting white supremacists to speak at his college chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, to use the Solutrean hypothesis to author the novel White Apocalypse. The conceit of the book is that Solutrean culture was mercilessly wiped out by invading Beringians (the ancestors of modern Native Americans). The genocide of the ancient Europeans, we learn through the rogue anthropologist protagonist, has been concealed from us in a giant conspiracy. Bristow’s purpose is to deny status to the First Nations, and he found his audience with reviewers like Billy Roper of White Resistance and Kevin Alfred Strom, the founder of National Vanguard. Bristow is now a lawyer who represents, among others, Matthew Heimbach, the head of the white nationalist traditionalist Youth Network, being sued for allegedly shoving a woman of color and calling her a “c**t” and a “n****r” at a Trump rally in 2016.

But I digress.

Scientists today almost exclusively reject the Solutrean hypothesis, but twenty years ago a variant on this hypothesis was used to argue that Kennewick Man was not Native American. The prehistoric remains of Kennewick Man, as he was known, were discovered along the banks of the Columbia River region in Kennewick, Washington in 1996. To the dismay of the anthropological community, he was initially racialized as a European and, against the objections of the local Umatilla people, his remains were removed for further study.

The archaeologists who initially worked on the bones, James Chatters and Douglas Owsley, argued quite forcefully that the remains were not Native American and thus unrelated to the Umatilla people. Chatters argued that the skull was “Caucasoid” and literally resembled Patrick Stewart. Owsley argued for Polynesian origins.

Kennewick Man was the focal point of a nine-year court case in which Native American tribes fought to gain ownership of the Kennewick Man (whom they referred to as ‘the Ancient One’). In 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because a cultural link could not be established between the remains and any of the Native American tribes, the scientific community could continue to study them.

It was only in 2015, when geneticists at the University of Copenhagen demonstrated that, among living peoples, the Kennewick Man is most closely related to the Native American tribes, including the Umatilla, that the question was settled. He has since been repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but for nearly a decade scholarly claims about his racial identity were used to strip Native Americans of their cultural heritage.

It is not the case that the scientists performing the latest study, or any study on human origins, are racist themselves. Rather, it’s that this whole question is racially and politically loaded. Anytime a person makes the claim that there were people on a particular continent that predate the indigenous peoples encountered by later Westerners, they are making the kind of claim that, historically speaking, has been used to justify the subjugation of those people.

If there were people here before the Native Americans, that’s historically and anthropologically important information, but it has to be strongly supported. As Marks said, “This isn’t fruit-fly science…[It’s] a strong bio-political statement, and needs to have a firmer basis.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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