Many scholars have asked: “Where did Native Americans come from?” but no one has managed to answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. In his book Red Earth, White Lies, famed Indian activist and writer Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote: “We do not know the real history of our planet and we know very little about the historical experiences of various societies and races which constitute our species.”
Oral tradition contains tantalizing bits of knowledge and lore about prehistoric times. In the stories of the elders, facts about migrations and drastic climate changes are interwoven with metaphor and myth. Tribal traditions, Deloria said, “vary considerably regarding the origin of man. Much of this knowledge is esoteric, revealed in a ceremonial setting… Some tribes speak of transoceanic migration in boats, the Hopis and the Colvilles for example, and others speak of the experience of a creation, such as the Yakimas and other Pacific Northwest tribes. Some tribes even talk about migrations from other planets.”
In the academic world, there is little agreement regarding the origin of American Indians. The earliest hypothesis came from European missionaries who arrived in the 15th century. At the time, it was common for Europeans to interpret everything through the Bible, and their initial guess was that Indians were descendants of the legendary 10 lost tribes of Israel. The idea was posited by the friar and defender of Native rights Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who spent much of his life trying to protect Indians from the cruelty of Spanish conquistadors.
According to Miloslav Stingl, a Czech anthropologist and author of Indiani bez Tomahavku (translated from the Russian as Indians Without Tomahawks), the “Israel theory” had many supporters, including historians Diego Durán, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés and Juan de Torquemada. It remained popular into the early 19th century, when Lord Kingsborough, an Irish antiquarian, paid a lofty price for supporting it. Kingsborough was so adamant about the idea, that he spent all his money on publishing his manuscript on the subject, and died in debtor’s prison.
Christians were not alone in supporting the 10 Tribes theory. Some European Jews, eternally persecuted by Christians, saw America as their possible promised land. In his book Mikveh Yisrael (The Hope of Israel, published WHEN TK), Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel wrote of a Jewish Dutch explorer of the Americas who reportedly tried to communicate with Indians in several European languages, but had no success. The Dutch explorer then said something in Hebrew to his Jewish colleague, and unexpectedly the chief responded with “Shema Yisrael,” which translates into English as “Hear, Israel,” a common Jewish prayer.
That anecdote, hinting of a mystical link between Jews and American Indians, was heralded by supporters the Israel theory. Harold Sebel, in his book Egon Erwin Kisch, the Raging Reporter (published in 1997), wrote that Czech writer, journalist and traveler Egon Erwin Kisch encountered what he called “Native Jews” in the Mexican village of Venta Prieta in the 1940s. Historians don’t dispute this seemingly amazing story, because the explanation for Venta Prieta is no mystery. During the Spanish Inquisition, many European Jews fled to Mexico. It is from them that Indians who lived in the area learned about Judaism.
In the 1880s, the renowned Argentine paleontologist and zoologist Florentino Ameghino came up with a new hypothesis. He posited that all humanity, including Indians, originated in South America. His theory, based on stone tools, bones and evidence of man-made fires he found in sediments dating back over 3.5 million years, did not gain much traction within the academic community. But he did get a moon crater named after him many years after his death.
In the 20th Century, many academics have favored the Bering Strait theory, which argues that ancestors of today’s American Indians originated in Asia, migrated to Siberia, and later crossed over to Alaska, using the land-bridge that existed between the two continents up until about 12,500 years ago. Also, there is linguistic evidence of a connection between Asian and Native languages. However, some argue that the cornerstone of the Bering Strait theory—the land bridge migration—lacks sufficient archeological evidence and has many holes in it. The theory relies heavily on the assumption that the Strait was the only possible route from Asia to America back then. However, it has been proven that the oceanic route was also feasible. French anthropologist Paul Rivet believed that South America was populated by settlers from Australia and Melanesia, who arrived by sea, about 6,000 years ago. Others, like Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, suggested that migration occurred the other way, from South America to Australia. To demonstrate his point, Heyerdahl constructed a raft and sailed from Peru to Polynesia. The documentary film about his expedition, Kon Tiki, won an Academy Award in 1951.
Another concern with the Bering Strait theory has to do with dating of archeological data. Supporters of the land-bridge migration believe there was no human presence in the Western hemisphere prior to roughly 12,500 years ago, but archeologists have discovered artifacts that might be significantly older. In Red Earth, White Lies, Deloria cited instances in which archeological findings that did not comply with the Bering Strait theory were blatantly downplayed and even ridiculed by academics. He argued that the Bering Strait theory simply represents “scientific language for ‘I don’t know, but it sounds good and no one will check.’”
William Marder, author of Indians in the Americas: the Untold Story, also saw a conspiracy propping up the Bering Strait theory. He charged that “conservative archeologists have quieted the numerous new discoveries.” According to Marder, “in the early 1950s, Thomas E Lee of National Museum of Canada uncovered man-made implements dating back about 65,000 years in the glacial deposits in Sheguindah, on Manitoulin Island in northern Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada. Geologist John Sanford of Wayne State University proposed that the oldest of these tools were at least 65,000 years old, and might be as much as 125,000. The finding in 1951 outraged the scientific community to where Thomas Lee was harassed from his Civil Service position to unemployment. His funds were cut off and he was unable to publish his findings.” Marder wrote that Sanford’s findings vanished into storage bins of the National Museum of Canada. Furthermore, “for refusing to fire the discoverer, the Director of the National Museum, who had proposed to have a monograph on the site published, was himself fired and driven into exile.”
While archeologists are fighting over the age of animal bones and artifacts, geneticists offer theories and evidence of their own. One unique hypothesis came from a group of Russian geneticists from the Tuvan Institute of Humanitarian Studies, who followed the footsteps of British biologist Bryan Sykes. Based on DNA study, Sykes suggested that all modern Europeans are descendants of seven clan mothers. Using a similar method of genetic research, Zakharov-Gekekhus and his colleagues concluded that today’s American Indians descended from four clan mothers who lived in the Sayan area of Siberia during prehistoric times. Russian scholars assumed that the ancestors of today’s Indians migrated to America over the Bering Strait, but their research did not address the migration issue directly and focused mainly on genetic correlations.
While many scholars assumed that Indians came from Eurasia–via one route or another–some turned the argument on its head and argued that Europeans came from America. Werner Muller, a well-respected German ethnologist and author of America: the New World or the Old?, came up with a Bering Strait theory “in reverse.” Muller’s ideas were based on the analysis of architectural styles, astronomy and calendar recordings of Indian tribes. He also took into consideration the Indian oral tradition. According to Muller, very early in history, four tribes populated North America: the Salish, the Sioux, the Algonkians [sic], and a group of “white-skinned, bearded people.” At some point, a major climatic catastrophe (Deloria thought it was the beginning of the Ice Age) caused the Indian groups to spread south, and the white-skinned people migrated eastward, into Scandinavia and Western Europe.
The list of guesses and hypothesis goes on and on. Scientists have found many similarities between cultures across the globe. The pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans resemble the ones in Europe, China, and Southeast Asia. Megalithic structures used for astronomical observations have been found in England, Scotland, Denmark, Malta, New West Guinea and both North and South America. Who taught whom? How did this knowledge travel from one continent to another? No one knows.