Monday, January 30, 2012

The First Americans, 1: Asiatic Origins


Today’s American Indian population of more than 2.8 million counted in the 2010 Census is in sharp contrast to the native population in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name. The entire North American continent was then the exclusive domain of Indians.
A mere hundred years later, the Indian tribes of the Hudson Valley had sold their highly desirable lands to Dutch or English colonists, usually for a song. The Indian tribes of the region--Mahicans and Munsees--then scattered to the four winds, leaving only names on the land and a few tribal members in isolated remnant groups.
Some Hudson Valley tribes found their way to Massachusetts, others to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. To find descendants of these tribes today, one would have to travel to Wisconsin or to Ontario in Canada, where small bands still live on reservations.
A similar extinction drama was played out in the Massachusetts Bay colony after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. Eventually, a whole section of American ethnography was pushed from their lands and settled on reservations in what were considered to be undesirable areas of the republic. In some cases, as in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), they were given lands that proved to be oil-bearing, making a few rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Indians owe their name to a monumental gaffe committed by Christopher Columbus five centuries ago. Thinking he had reached India in 1492, he called the people he encountered "los Indios." 
Eventually, it was recognized that he had not reached Asia but had discovered an unknown continent. By then, the word "Indian" or a close variant had entered the major languages of the world.
To rectify Columbus's error and avoid the stereotypes that have sprung up, it is fashionable today to refer to Indians as "Native Americans." Although it may be politically incorrect to demur, the term Native American is as much a misnomer as was Indian. We Americans are all descended from immigrants; Indians merely got here sooner than the rest of us.

The Land Bridge

Originating in Asia, ancestors of the so-called Native Americans are believed to have reached Alaska from Siberia by a land bridge exposed in shallow Bering Strait. Geologists refer to the twin areas of Russia east of the Lena River and northwestern North America west of longitude 130 degrees as Beringia.
Although not very likely in a warming planet, a drop of only 120 feet in today's ocean level today would create a land bridge again and reveal the link from one continent to another. It seems clear the first Americans arrived in what is North America well before the last major glaciation and then made their way southward. Hugging the shoreline along the still ice-covered part of the continent, they depended on fish and shell fish for sustenance.
Evidence of their passage along the ocean strand may exist under shallow Pacific coastal waters. Robert Ballard, explorer of the Titanic wreck, has indicated an interest in such a project.
Their migration was for the most basic of reasons: food. Once past the southern limit of glacial ice, these hunter-gatherers traveled inland in small bands, moving with the game that supplied them with meat and furs.
Always seeking new regions where animals and plants were plentiful, they explored ever southward as the climate moderated. Taking whatever a bountiful nature offered, they made no effort to increase or propagate their food supply by domesticating animals or rising crops.
Eventually, wandering groups reached the southernmost tip of South America.  Excavations at the Monte Verde site in Chile have yielded radiocarbon dates of 12,500 years. This date, however, is not universally accepted. Other sites in the Americas have been claimed to have even earlier dates, and the jury is still out.
Nevertheless, by traveling as little as three miles a week, the distance between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego could have been covered in about 70 years. Along the way, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths as large as elephants, and other animals all fell victim to their primitive flint-tipped spears.
Unlike later Indian hunters, who killed only as much as they needed for food, clothing and shelter, their Ice Age forbears killed wantonly. Ironically, by slaughtering their quarry in mass kills they hastened the extinction of the very animals upon which they depended.
Two such animals were the camel and the horse, once common on the plains of western America. Soon after the end of the Ice Age and before their total extinction, these quadrupeds also used the Bering Strait land bridge for migration--but in the opposite direction.
Spreading westward across Asia, the primitive wild horse of the steppes was eventually domesticated. When Indians encountered mounted Spanish explorers in 1539, all memory of earlier horses had been lost, and they regarded the strange new animals with awe. Once introduced to the horse, however, the Plains Indians quickly adapted to an equine way of life.

Old vs. New Worlds
At some time after 11,000 years ago, rising sea levels cut off the Bering Strait land bridge, blocking the passage of Stone Age peoples. That the Indians who occupied the New World were still living in the Stone Age when Columbus reached these shores has long interested scientists.
What was it that kept Indians from matching the growth of civilizations of the Old World?
First and foremost, the Indians had remained non-literate. Developed in the fertile Mesopotamian plain as an adjunct to trade and government, writing and reading gave the Old World an initial leap forward. These two skills led to logical thought, mathematics, science, medicine and invention. Useful arts followed: engineering, dam-building, irrigation, intensive agriculture, ceramics and metallurgy.
Reading and writing paralleled still another phenomenon--cities that sprang up abruptly in the Old World about six thousand years ago. Elaborate systems of piping and aqueducts supplying water over long distances provided public baths and carried off wastes, accelerating the clustering of peoples. Initial agricultural cultures soon gave way to commercial and industrial civilizations.
Cities became states and nations with stratified social and economic hierarchies. These record-keeping bureaucracies were regulated by a judiciary and a priesthood, and governed by a ruling minority.
In contrast, the Indian lifestyle of foraging, hunting, fishing and farming limited them to small groups of families and clans gathered in temporary camps and small villages. Their only political organizations were tribes and loose confederacies.
Unlike the sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys and camels of the Old World, with the exception of the dog, the animals available to the Indians did not lend themselves to domestication. In northern Europe, even reindeer and elk were tamed and harnessed.
Lacking domestic animals, Indians in the Western Hemisphere were largely doomed to continuing their nomadic lifestyle. Without draft animals and the plow, their attempts at raising crops necessarily were rudimentary. And without beasts of burden and wheels to provide transport, possessions other than the most portable tools and utensils quickly became impediments to a wandering lifestyle.

Editor’s Note: Look for the second part of this series, “The First Americans, 2: An Inevitable Conflict of Cultures.” 

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