Alvin Josephy and the “new” science on Native American origins

Several friends quickly sent me the NYTimes review of a new book on the old subject of human origins in the Americas. The book is ORIGIN: A Genetic History of the Americas, and the author is Jennifer Raff. According to the reviewer, Raff consulted the sciences of “archaeology, genetics, and linguistics” in her book—which I have not read, but have ordered!

According to reviewer Jeremy DeSilva, “She builds a persuasive case with both archaeological and genetic evidence that the path to the Americas was coastal (the Kelp Highway hypothesis) rather than inland, and that Beringia was not a bridge but a homeland — twice the size of Texas — inhabited for millenniums by the ancestors of the First Peoples of the Americas.”

It’s bothered me for years that anthropologists and archeologists have quibbled about a few thousand years but appeared “settled” on people from Asia arriving on the American continents over a land bridge. I’m not an anthropologist or archeologist, but reading history and a dose of common sense tells me that people follow water, and that at least until the industrial revolution, water was the primary means of travel.

Alvin Josephy published The Indian Heritage of America in 1968. That was well before the unraveling of DNA, but like Raff today, he consulted linguists, and begins the book with language maps. Before DNA, what better way was there to trace the movements of people and development of their interrelated social structures than through their languages.

Linguists—missionaries and travelers had been collecting Native languages for centuries; explorer John Wesley Powell had directed a North American language classification program at the Smithsonian in the 1890s—knew things that physical anthropologists and other land bridge theorists failed to consider. They know that languages travel, morph, and become distinct in ways and timeframes that can be calculated. Josephy concluded that the estimated 2500 hundred American languages—over 500 in North America alone, could not have happened in 12,000 years. He was, by his own words, locked into a land bridge arrival, but he thought it must have been a previous bridge 30 or possibly 50 thousand years ago. Unfortunately for me, and for readers today, I did not have that conversation with him, had not thought through the land bridge v. Kelp Highway possibilities. I think he would easily adopt the Kelp Highway.

He was clear on another controversy that grew alongside the 12,000-year land bridge timeline—the division between “long-counters” and “short-counters.” The short-counters said that there were no more than 10 or 15 million people in all of the Americas when Europeans arrived. The long-counters thought there must have been more than 70 million, maybe 90 million: 8-12 million in North America; 20-25 million in Mexico and Central America, and the rest in South America. According to Josephy and the linguists, it took more time and more people to get that many languages built and spread from the Arctic all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The issue was resolved, in Josephy’s mind, by this knowledge of linguistics.

That controversy has been resolved in recent times by biologists. Short-counters thought that there was no way that diseases could have killed so many indigenous Americans. According to Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, virologists in the 1980s confirmed the devastating impacts of smallpox and other infectious diseases on Native populations. Biology added its weight to linguistics.

And then there is the story of Jon Turk, a pure adventurer who read about “the ancient one”—aka Kennewick man by the American public, and sought to prove by following it that the Kelp Highway made sense. His book is In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific.

But Jon Turk and the role of adventurers in dealing with scientific theory is another story!

I’ll let you know when ORIGIN: A Genetic History of the Americas hits my overloaded reading table!

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