As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.
History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The Original Inhabitants - What They Lost and What They Retained
What is this?
Today we begin the second chapter in our story about American history. Our first chapter helped us understand more about the Europeans who immigrated to North America in the 1600s - people who generally chose to leave or who were no longer wanted in Europe, especially in England, because of religious, political, and/or economic reasons. Our second chapter will help us understand the people with whom the Europeans came into contact when they arrived at their colonial destinations - the North American Indian Nations.
1. To revise our attitudes about American Indians by debunking several myths:
1. Land Bridge Migration: The first American Indians came from Asia to North America between 11-12,000 years ago via a land bridge over the Bering Straits. They made their way through what is now Alaska and then followed an ice-free highway down the continent. Their culture has been named Clovis for their distinctive weapons that have been found in digs nationwide.
Reality: From a strictly scientific viewpoint, we do not know how ancient human remains might be related to contemporary Indian peoples, nor do we know from whence they came. Today, at least three opposing viewpoints exist - the Bering Strait migration theory, the multiple migration theory, and the indigenous origin belief.
- Bering Strait Theory - Many American archeologists - and most historians - believe American Indians descended from northern Asians who migrated to North America by crossing over a now-submerged land bridge from Siberia to Alaska somewhere between 11,500 and 20,000 years ago.
- Multiple Migrations Theory - American Indians came to North America via several different routes originating from both east to west and west to east. If you examine the map below, you can see the various routes.
- Indigenous Origin - Most members of Native American communities believe that they are indigenous to the Americas and have been on the continents "since the first day of light.
So, what are the facts? There are two distinct viewpoints, one from the academic community and one from the Indian community.
- Academic Community: Until the summer of 1977, most contemporary archeologists believed American Indians descended from northern Asians and crossed into North America from the Bering Straits. At least four archeological findings have begun to challenge this interpretation.
- In the summer of 1977, archaeologists excavated an important new site in Monte Verde, Chile. The expedition unearthed organic remains though to be 12,500 years old and some artifacts thought to be 33,000 years old. Twenty years later in 1997, a group of Paleoindian specialists studied the artifacts and visited the site, making two important conclusions:
- while the chances are good that human occupation occurred earlier than 12,500 in this region, there is not enough evidence to make this assertion; and
- the site indicates occupation 1,000 years before Clovis. Given the fact that Monte Verde is thousands of miles south of the Bering Land Bridge, it puts this theory into grave jeopardy.
- In July 1996 at Kennewick, Washington, the skeletal remains of a prehistoric man were found on a bank of the Columbia River. What became known as Kennewick Man is one of the most complete ancient skeletons ever found - dating back perhaps 9,000 years. His anatomical features were quite different from those of modern American Indians suggesting instead that his relatives were Caucasoid peoples. The finding of the skeleton triggered a nine-year legal clash between scientists, the US government and American Indian tribes who claim Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors. In February 2004, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that a cultural link between any of the American Indian nations in that region and the Kennewick Man was not genetically justified, allowing scientific study of the remains to continue.
- In late 1998, radiocarbon and DNA experts examined the bones of a woman found on the Channel Islands in 1959. Tests indicate that the bones are probably 13,000 years old - making her the oldest known human skeleton in North America. This finding has bolstered previous theories that the first settlers in North America may have been Polynesian or Southern Asians who came here by boat.
- In late 1999, two anthropologists proposed yet another theory - the continent's first inhabitants may have crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than 18,000 years ago from Europe’s Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain, Portugal, and southwestern France.) Called the Solutreans, these explorers are believed to have settled on the east coast. The researchers examined projectile points and other artifacts already discovered on both sides of the Atlantic, concluding that the east coast projectile points and other archaeological clues are "virtually indistinguishable" from those found in Clovis.
- American Indian Community: Many members of the American Indian community have long disputed the migration theory as well as the white man’s desire to place a time for human habitation. They claim instead that they have been on the North American continents "since the first day of light." Many different tribes have carried down oral histories that tell of sky people falling to earth to bring forth men and women and of ancestors coming from a world below through a vertical tunnel to live in sunlight.
So what does this mean? Today’s scientific community cannot say with any certainty who the first settlers in North America were - or how they got here. It also means that in all probability, multiple migrations occurred. And finally, it means that the discussion about the first peoples in America will continue to be both complicated and contentious.
2. "New World" Myth: When the early explorers landed in North America, they discovered a sparsely populated "New World."
Reality: When Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492 he did not discover this land. Columbus could not discover what another people already knew and owned. Rather than finding a "New World," Columbus established contact with a very old world and initially facilitated the meeting of two ancient cultures - European and Indian. With the arrival of the slave trade, the Spanish facilitated the meeting of three ancient cultures - African, European, and Indian.
So, what are the facts? By the time European explorers landed in North America, the inhabitants of the native communities comprised somewhere between 5 and 10 million people who belonged to between 500-600 different tribal societies - the largest of which are shown in the map above.
- It is believed that on the northwest coast alone, over 130,000 American Indians lived in hundreds of communities.
- When Columbus landed in Hispaniola, it is believed that somewhere between 1-3 million American Indians lived on the island. When compared with the population of Spain - about 6-10 million in an area seven times as large - North America appears quite populous.
- Another comparison finds that the Aztec capital had about 165,000 to 250,000 occupants which was larger than many of the great European cities of the day: Constantinople, Naples, Venice, Milan, and Paris.
- The tribal peoples of North America spoke more than 700 different languages - many of which can be found on this map illustrating the major languages spoken prior to European settlement - and made their livings in a wide array of different environments.
3. Virgin Wilderness Myth: When the European settlers arrived, they found a pristine, virgin wilderness and a people untouched by white civilization.
Reality: When Europeans arrived, American Indians had already altered their various environments to fit their cultural needs, and their numbers had been dramatically decimated by earlier contact with European disease.
So, what are the facts? Before Europeans arrived, the indigenous peoples had already altered the environment in at least four ways.
4. The Primitive, Uncivilized, Heathen Savage Myth: Ancient American Indian tribes were so primitive that they never attained the agricultural or technological sophistication of other ancient peoples. Thus, when European settlers arrived in the "New World", they encountered bands of primitive, uncivilized, heathen savages.
Reality. Historical evidence indicates that many Indian tribes had attained impressive levels of agricultural, cultural, and/or technological sophistication prior to the "discovery" of the "New World" by Europeans. Indeed, when European settlers arrived, between 500-600 separate tribal societies existed in North America, most of which were highly civilized in terms of their political, economic, social, and spiritual development. Each society had developed the capacity for unified action, had learned how to adapt to their natural environment, had achieved some sense of group identity and ethnic pride, and had created its own system of family and social organization.
So, what are the facts? Most tribes were, in fact, technologically, agriculturally, and politically sophisticated. Most lived in settled (rather than nomadic) communities that were highly developed. Such tribes shared the following characteristics:
- Division of labor among men and women
- Solid subsistence base.
- Economic, social, cultural, political, and spiritual diversity.
- Hierarchical organization
- Environmental adaptation to their natural environments.
5. The "Hindrance to Progress" Myth: In order to ensure the survival and progress of the civilized, European, Christian settlers, it was inevitable that the Indians be defeated.
Reality. European progress was impeded not because the indigenous peoples were uncivilized and incapable of living harmoniously with the settlers, but because Europeans were unwilling and incapable of accepting the American Indians' political, social, economic, and spiritual traditions as civilized. The real obstacles that got in the way of European acceptance of Indian peoples were that they were not Christians and no visible forms of worshipping God; they made no effort to subdue the land and make it profitable; they had no understanding of the importance of private property; and they were not willing to give up their land and submit to English rule.
So what are the facts?
- Many first hand accounts describe the Indians of the North continent and of the West Indies as friendly, peaceful, and welcoming.
- Juan Rodiquez Cabrillo, when writing about his voyage along the Southern California coast in 1542, observed, "very fine valleys [with] maize and abundant food ... many savannahs and groves" that were "densely populated" and "thickly settled" when Indians who often greeted the Spanish ships in friendship and traded with them of peaceful ceremonies. (Stanndard, 1992:23.)
- If such communities were not comprised of uncivilized savages who threatened European settlement and white progress, why has the myth persisted? Several historians have flatly stated that the image of native barbarism and savagery serves to rationalize European conquest. (Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cost of Conquest. Chapel Hill: Univ. of No. Carolina Press, 1975; Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978; and David Stannard, American Holocaust. NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.)
- What, then, were the obstacles that got in the way of European acceptance of the indigenous peoples:
- The Indians were not Christians nor did they have any visible forms of worshipping God.
- The Indians had made no effort to subdue the land - to make it profitable.
- The Indians had no understanding of private property.
- The Indians were not willing to be ignored.