When did people first arrive in the Americas, and where did they come from? When I started researching Canadian history for this blog I thought that the answers to those questions were well understood, but also that they didn’t really matter. I was wrong on both counts, and reminded of that fact by a recent controversy involving an unlikely migration theory and its association with an obscure aspect of Wendat history that I’d just read about.
If you want to learn about the very distant past, you have a few different tools at your disposal. Using archaeology, you can dig up objects and make educated guesses about how old they are, and how they are connected to other dug-up objects. Using linguistics, you can get an idea of how languages have morphed and moved through time and space, which can tell you something about how different peoples relate to each other. Genetics can also help indicate which groups of people are more closely related to each other, and oral histories can tell you what a people believe is important to remember about themselves and where they came from. And, when you go back far enough, you’ll also need geology, since even just thousands of years ago, the very shapes of land, water, and ice were different.
If you want a high degree of confidence and precision for questions like “when did people first get here” and “where did they come from,” all of these tools are imperfect and inadequate. Archaeologists deal with materials that are often mixed up and badly decomposed. Some items, like stone, can’t easily be dated, so archaeologists instead date the organic matter they find nearby. But determining that the organic matter is indeed the same age as the stone is sometimes imprecise, as are other techniques like using burial depth as a proxy for time. Clues can also be misleading: sometimes charcoal indicates the presence of a hearth, and sometimes charcoal is just charcoal.
Genetics can seem like a more precise science, and in many ways it is, but even DNA evidence can be open to interpretation because (as far as I understand it, which isn’t far) people have moved around and interbred so much over such a long period of time that there are multiple possible explanations for the presence of genetic differences in people from different parts of the world, and those differences are exceedingly small to begin with.
Even accounting for all these challenges, most scientists are relatively confident concluding that the northwestern tip of North America (modern day Alaska) and the northeastern tip of Asia (Siberia) used to be connected, and that the first people to make it to the Americas walked across that “land bridge” (actually a wide territory, more like a whole missing country than a “bridge”), then spread out to populate all of the Americas, all the way to the southern tip of what is now Chile. Since 1937 — extremely recently given the timescale we’re dealing with — we’ve called this former land Beringia, or the Bering land bridge.
The time range given for the migration across Beringia, though, is between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, depending on which evidence you prefer and how you interpret it, which is a massive range. Additionally, scientists disagree on if people came all at once or in successive waves, what routes they took through the Americas, and if they primarily came by land or also by boats.
As competing versions of Beringia migration theories have evolved, a theme that’s apparent and frustrating for some Indigenous people is that archaeologists are perpetually underestimating how long humans have been here. The nature of archaeology is that as more sites are discovered and dug, archaeologists are more and more likely to find older and older evidence of humans, which keeps pushing back the earliest date they think humans may have arrived. One recent study even suggested the earliest date of human habitation should jump back by more than 100,000 years. (Some Indigenous people saw that study as proof of what they already knew, while others used this evidence to attack Indigenous claims on American land. The majority of scientists are extremely skeptical of the study.)
The response I most often see from Indigenous people to any specific date is that their ancestors have been here “since time immemorial,” effectively forever. For people who use this phrase, any effort to put an exact date on human arrival seems to, at best, miss the point. At worst, those scientific conclusions become political tools to argue that Indigenous people are “immigrants” or “settlers,” no different from Europeans and other recent arrivals. (That argument is maybe worth unpacking in a post of its own at some point. For now I will just say I think how and when Indigenous peoples first appeared in the Americas is hardly comparable to how and when non-Indigenous peoples did.)
It’s in the context of this uncertain, controversial, and political charged atmosphere that a few weeks ago the CBC series The Nature of Things decided to air a documentary about yet another theory: that instead of coming from Asia 15,000 years ago (give or take 5,000 years), the very first Americans came from Europe, across the Atlantic, perhaps more than 20,000 years ago. This theory is called the Solutrean hypothesis, named after the Solutrean people who lived in what is now France and Spain.
It’s an exciting new idea that would turn conventional wisdom on its head. It’s also not taken seriously by a comfortable majority of experts like archaeologists and geneticists. Some of the people who most strongly argue for the Solutrean hypothesis are white supremacists, who see it as evidence of the early superiority of the white race something something. (No one has been able to explain to them that no one from that long ago would be recognizable as any “race” from today, nor that race is an abstract concept with little scientific meaning anyway, but here again is a topic for another day.)
A couple things caught my attention about the CBC’s decision to air the documentary, called Ice Bridge. (The CBC has blocked viewing of this documentary from outside of Canada, so I’ve been unable to watch it here in California, and am relying on news reports and other descriptions of it instead.) One was that I’d been meaning to blog about when and how people arrived in the Americas as part of my year of blogging about Canadian history, but I never got around to it. Two was the invocation of a Huron-Wendat “origin story” that “puts their ancestors having arrived from the east over a great salted lake” as evidence in support of the Solutrean hypothesis.
I’ve written a lot about the Wendat confederacy for this blog. In my longform overview of Wendat history, A country called Wendake, I described the ancestors of the Wendats as coming from the south, not the east:
In ancient times, when the ancestors of the Wendats first came north, chasing the melting ice as the world warmed, they found themselves “surrounded by a sea of Algonkian peoples,” the nations who already lived in the northern land.
This account was based on (and quoted from) the preferred origin story of historian and Wendat Georges E. Sioui, who believes that the location of the Wendat creation myth — their Garden of Eden — can be traced to a place called Big Bone Lick in modern day Boone County, Kentucky:
The Wendat Creation myth situates this people’s origin at the spot where Aataentsic, the woman who came from the sky to found the earthly world, discovered ‘her Grandmother and bore twin sons… It is to be found in Boone County in present-day Kentucky, where the bones of giant prehistoric bison have been discovered – hence the name ‘Big Bone Licks’ [sic] given to this ancient sacred place… Its waters, once so sweet and clear that ‘the smallest pebble could be seen at the bottom of its inconceivable depths,’ became salty, earning it the Wendat name of Ohtsehyoowah (‘Bitter Spring’), which it has kept.
So what of the eastern origin story that Ice Bridge associates with the Solutreans? “In my view,” writes Sioui, “Wendat oral tradition reveals a confusion about an eastern origin.” He believes the migration of some Wendat refugees after the destruction of their confederacy got misidentified as an origin story, something he (and his friend and fellow historian Bruce Trigger) say can happen with oral history, which often “heightens the importance of events, particularly those relating to the incorporation of strangers.”
The reason I didn’t think any of this mattered much is that, for me, it doesn’t really change anything. If people have lived here for 10,000 years or 100,000 years, if they first came via Europe or Asia after leaving Africa, it doesn’t seem to significantly change the interpretation of events since. But it matters a great deal to many Indigenous people and their harassers, and to scientists whose jobs and passions revolve around the discovery of new information about our shared and divergent pasts.
The decision to air Ice Bridge gave a fringe theory undue weight and credulity, as TV and film are still uniquely able to do. But there is still no shortage of new information yet to be discovered and understood. Just as people have been here since time immemorial, our best guess at the specific, detailed answers to questions about when and how they arrived will continue to change in perpetuity.
Find out when this site is updated: