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
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.
The theory that Native Americans migrated from Asia was first suggested long before scientific evidence was collected to support it.
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
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
Modern studies of
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
•straight black hair
•sparse facial and body hair
•high cheek bones
•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.
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
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
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.
The Sioux writer
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
Much like Deloria,
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.
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.
Natural disasters as push-pull factors
Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants