Native Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Native Americans had occupied the Western Hemisphere for at least thirteen millennia before the first modern Europeans, Africans, and Asians arrived, they, like the immigrant peoples who would follow them, originally came to the New World as immigrants.

There is substantial agreement among historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scholars that the native peoples of North America originated in Asia. Most researchers believe that the ancestors of modern Indians, as they have come to be known, migrated from Siberia across the Bering StraitBering Strait to Alaska. These early immigrants must have come to North America during periodic ice ages that caused the sea level to drop far enough to create a landmass approximately nine hundred miles wide that connected the Eurasian and North American continents. These early migrants probably followed the migratory mammals they hunted into North America. They eventually traveled southward and eastward until they populated most parts of the North American continent and continued advancing into Central and South America.Native Americans;originsNative Americans;origins[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Native Americans[03740]

Despite widespread agreement on this basic theory of the origin of Native Americans, there is great disagreement concerning the timing of the migration. Furthermore, some Native American historians and writers have questioned the basic idea of explaining their origins with scientific theories that discredit the creation stories of many tribes. Indeed, such theories call into question the very idea that Native Americans are “native,” implying instead that they are merely another immigrant group that happened to arrive very early.

Scientific Theories

The theory that Native Americans migrated from Asia was first suggested long before scientific evidence was collected to support it. Columbus, ChristopherChristopher Columbus and other early European explorers and settlers in the New World assumed that Asia and North America were connected. After the vast distance between Eurasia and North America was later understood, scholars recognized that the presence of Native Americans in what they called the New World contradicted the biblical account of Creation, which says that human beings were created in one and only one place. During the late sixteenth century, the Spanish Jesuit missionary Acosta, José deJosé de Acosta proposed a migration theory to explain the existence of Native Americans, thereby vindicating the biblical account of creation. In 1728, when Bering, VitusVitus Bering discovered the Bering Straitstrait between Siberia and Alaska that would later be named after him, Acosta’s migration theory was discredited because no one believed that primitive peoples could have crossed the strait by boat.

According to one theory, the first people to arrive in North America traveled over a land bridge between modern-day Siberia and Alaska. Once on the continent, they gradually spread southward and eastward.

During the twentieth century, scientists finally found evidence to support Acosta’s theory despite the existence of the Bering Strait. During several periods within the Pleistocene period, glaciers interrupted the normal flow of water back into the ocean, causing the sea level to drop as much as three hundred feet. During the last period of glaciation, which occurred between 70,000 and 12,000 years ago, a land bridge linked the coast of Siberia with the coast of Alaska. Archaeologists named this land bridge Beringia because it follows the course of the Bering StraitBering Strait. Furthermore, there is general agreement that the geologic record suggests that Beringia would have provided a practical route for human migration between 70,000 and 45,000 years ago and again between 25,000 and 14,000 years ago. However, disagreement on two points remains: exactly when human migration occurred and whether there was a single period of migration or multiple migrations over a longer period of time.

Asian-Native American Ties

During the twentieth century, scientists assembled overwhelming evidence proving that a migration from Eurasia to North America did, in fact, occur. In addition to the geological evidence showing that the existence of a land bridge made migration possible, anthropologists have shown that Native Americans share many characteristics with Asians, particularly the inhabitants of northern Siberia. In his 1998 book The Origins of Native Americans, anthropologist Crawford, MichaelMichael Crawford points to four types of evidence for Asian-Native American connections: genetic, morphological, craniometric, and cultural.

Modern studies ofDeoxyribonucleic aciddeoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) have demonstrated that Native Americans have close genetic ties to several modern Asian peoples. Moreover, some genetic markers that appear in Native Americans appear in only one other genetic group: Asians. Crawford traces this connection down to something as mundane as earwax, pointing out that both New World and Asian peoples exhibit a high incidence of dry and brittle ear wax that is unlike the sticky and wet variety that characterizes other populations of the world. One practical result of this similarity is an unusually high level of ear infections among populations in Alaska and Siberia.

Even before the migration theory had real scientific evidence to back it up, it shared with modern science what Crawford calls “morphological” and “craniometric” evidence. Consequently, it had from its start a kind of plausibility. In simple terms, the Native Americans whom Acosta, José deJosé de Acosta saw during the sixteenth century looked to him as if they had come from Asia. Among other facial and bodily characteristics, the Native Americans shared these physical features with Asians:

•straight black hair

•sparse facial and body hair

•high cheek bones

•flat faces

•skin folds (in some cases) covering upper eyelids

Modern science and archeology have added to these similarities dental evidence. Craniometric measurements of Asian and Native American skulls have also supported the migration theory, as skull characteristics tie Native Americans to Asians, not to western Europeans or Africans.

Among the cultural similarities between Native Americans and Asians are beliefs in a natural world that is animated by spirits of animals and plants that must be placated at various times and in holy men and medicine men who have visions and can cure the sick. Even a cursory knowledge of Native American spirituality suggests that it has much more in common with Eastern religions that it does with Western religious beliefs.

Native American Origin Stories

The Native Americans’ traditions of their own origins contain no hints of migration from Asia. In fact, they almost entirely dispute the notion of Native peoples wandering into North America from anywhere else. Instead, traditional stories suggest that Native peoples emerged from the earth. The modern Kiowan writer Momaday, N. ScottN. Scott Momaday recounts the Kiowan story of origin in his 1969 book The Way to Rainy Mountain:

You know everything had to begin and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. There were many more than now, but not all of them got out. . . . They looked around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, “coming out.”

The Choctaw writer Hessing, Valjean McCartyValjean McCarty Hessing tells a similar creation story from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. In his version, a lonely raven saw a bubbling clamshell come out of the sand. As the raven watched, people emerged from the shell. The raven was delighted that he had company on this lonely earth. In the Zuñi creation story, a lonely Sunfather hears the cries of his children in Mother Earth as he wanders the sky. Seeing two columns of foam at the base of a waterfall, he engenders life in them, ordering that they become gods who will descend into the womb of Mother Earth and bring his children up into the light. Ladd, Edmund J.Edmund J. Ladd, a member of the Shiwi tribe, has observed that “Most, if not all” traditions of origin “teach that human beings were born out of mother earth.”

Scientific research has shown that Native Americans wandered into North America from Asia in search of food and in search of a home. Native American stories suggest that Native Americans were so much a part of this continent that they emerged from beneath it. Rather than seeking a home as so many others who came to America, they were already home–a part of the very soil.

Political Implications

The Sioux writer Deloria, Vine, Jr.Vine Deloria, Jr. has called the Bering StraitBering Strait theory of Native American origin “a triumph of doctrine over facts.” He points out that “there are no well-worn paths which clearly show migratory patterns,” and even if there were, there would be no indication of where the footprints were heading. Deloria has also pointed out the irony in the fact that the basic Western story of origin, the biblical account of Creation, undergirds modern scientific accounts in interesting ways.

Jose de Acosta could not reconcile the existence of Native Americans with the biblical account of Creation, so he theorized that Native Americans came from Asia. In so doing, he found a place for them in the story of Creation that he had brought with him to the New World, confirming that human beings were essentially exiles, wandering from a paradise from which they had been expelled for having sinned. Whether the explanation for the wandering is expulsion from the Garden of Eden or a desperate search for food leading human beings across the Bering StraitBering Strait, the outcome is the same: All of human life is wandering in search of a lost home, a journey that can only end when the wandering ceases in death. In such a context, the land itself is a prison, a place where one must toil to survive until the better world arrives. In contrast, Native American stories of origin suggest that Paradise is below the feet of Native people, that it is the very earth from which they emerged. They do not have to wander to find it–they have merely to live in its context and understand it.

Much like Deloria, Wilson, JamesJames Wilson in his 1999 history of Native America, The Earth Shall Weep, argues that in explaining Native Americans, western science and western religion have worked hand in hand. Modern scientists have even traced the genetic history of man back to a single woman, whom they have named “Eve” after the biblical mother of humankind. They have also theorized that humankind originated in one place, Africa, from which it spread into other parts of the world. Thus, whether the account is tilted toward the biblical or the scientific view of creation, the conclusion is the same: All Americans are wanderers who wound up here in this alien land and must somehow learn to live together as immigrants. Moreover, no one is “native,” not even Native Americans.


Just as for many, there is no reconciling of the biblical account of Creation with modern scientific theories of creation, such as evolution or the Big Bang, so Native American stories of creation will likely never be reconciled with the science of the migration theory of Native American origins. More importantly, however, Native American stories of creation carry with them an idea of rootedness and belonging that contradicts the biblical story of Creation as well as the science of the migration theory or even the science of evolution. In so doing, these stories dramatize for native people why they are a part of the land, “natives” in a land of immigrants.Native Americans;origins

Further Reading
  • Ballantine, Betty, and Ian Ballantine. Native Americans: An Illustrated History. Atlanta, Ga.: Turner, 1992. Well-illustrated book that includes a Native American account of Native American origins.
  • Crawford, Michael H. The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Detailed examination of the scientific evidence for Native American origins. Although the book is written for anthropologists, nonspecialists can grasp its basic arguments.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Encyclopedic reference work containing entries on Native American origins from the perspectives of both modern science and Native American cultures.
  • Kehoe, Alice B. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981. Traces the evolution of the first inhabitants of North America, region by region, from prehistory to the present. Contains recommended readings and sources at the end of each chapter.
  • Momaday, N. Scott. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969. A Kiowan Indian, Momaday reconstructs not only the stories of the origin of his people, but also the stories of their migration from the Great Plains to Oklahoma.
  • Underhill, Ruth M. Red Man’s America: A History of Indians in the United States. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Concise volume surveying origins, history, and definitive accounts of social customs, material culture, religion, and mythology. Written from the perspective of the first peoples of North America.
  • Wilson, James. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Grove, 1999. Comprehensive and highly readable history of Native Americans whose first part covers origins from the perspectives of both modern science and Native American traditions.


Asian immigrants


Natural disasters as push-pull factors

Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants

Categories: History