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1.1: Origins

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    When Columbus first encountered the Western hemisphere in 1492, it was inhabited by millions of people. Establishing a firm estimate of the population is troublesome; often such estimates are tinged with the ideological viewpoints of the authors, their cultures of origin, and the eras in which they wrote. Until recent decades, historians and scientists tended to make very low estimates of native populations, as conventional wisdom held that “inferior” indigenous peoples could not sustain the same kinds of dense populations as Europeans. More recently, estimates have soared for a variety of reasons; for example, some scholars speculate that estimates of population have become too inflated because of the desire to emphasize the devastation that European contact caused to the indigenous population.

    Current estimates hold that as much as a fifth of the world’s population—43-65 million people—inhabited the Western hemisphere at contact. Estimates of the North American population (excluding Mexico) vary from a low of seven million to a high of eighteen million people.

    A great deal of cultural diversity existed amongst this population; hundreds of groups spoke hundreds of languages, organized their society in a myriad of social and political ways, enacted innumerable rituals, and worshiped a multitude of gods.

    Another problem we face in examining this early period in U.S. history is one of nomenclature. What do we call the indigenous peoples of the Americas? Every term has its advantages and flaws. Some terms have been dismissed as racist (Red Indian); others have become outdated (Eskimo). Some view terms like Native American or First Peoples (the preferred term in Canada) as so politically correct that they are meaningless. Terms like aboriginal and indigenous assert a global identity for native peoples. However, the term aboriginal has become so closely associated with Australian Aborigines that it seems to exclude others. Moreover, while the notion of a global identity for indigenous peoples is useful in some instances, it is far too broad an idea to be useful in others. In the U.S., many use the term “Native American,” which first came into use in the 1980s as a means to indicate their primacy as the first peoples of the land. In general, the preference of native peoples is to self-identify as their own tribal affinity: Chickasaw, Ojibwa, Arapaho, etc. In terms of a larger, overarching term for the group as a whole, a 1995 survey of native peoples in the United States indicates that the first preference in nomenclature for native peoples is Indian. For this reason, this term will be preferred here.

    Origin Stories

    Indigenous people throughout the Western hemisphere talk of their origins as a people in oral histories, stories, and myths that link them intimately to the places they inhabit. The land, the stories commonly assert, was made for “the people,” and they were made to inhabit the land. Every group has an origin story, and they vary widely and are unique to the group. Sometimes, groups have multiple origin stories that tell differing versions of creation and the founding of the group. Origin stories often begin with a “First Person” (or First Peoples), a mythical man or woman who founded the group. These First People often are created from, or emerge from, the natural world itself. The first Iroquois fell from the sky; the first Lakota emerged from underground; the first Maya were created from corn. Sometimes, animals appear in origin stories as agents of creation. For example, in the Cherokee creation story, Water-Beetle dives deep into the ocean and brings up the mud that forms the earth. Buzzard then flies over the land, shaping it into mountains and valleys with the beat of his wings. These origin stories explained and shaped the worldview of each group, establishing their people’s purpose in this world as well as their relationship to the gods and the world around them. In other words, origin stories are key to establishing a group identity and a deep connection with the region the people inhabit.

    Screenshot (188).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ancient shell gorget from Fains Island, Tennessee, depicting a spider. Author: Gates P. Thruston Source: The Antiquities of Tennessee
    Sidebar \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    This book employs three terms in conveying dates. BCE and CE stand for Before Common Era, and Common Era, respectively. These terms coincide exactly with the BC/ AD dating system; therefore, 300 BC = 300 BCE, and 1976 AD = 1976 CE. The abbreviation BP stands for Before Present, and indicates “years ago” or years before the present. It is most commonly used by archaeologists in conjunction with radiocarbon dating, a means of determining the age of organic materials be measuring the amount of radioactive decay of carbon-14 in the material.

    Scientific Theories Of Origin

    Scientists and archaeologists hold several theories regarding the origins of Indians in the Americas. By far, the oldest and most widely accepted of these theories is the Bering Land Bridge migration model. This theory posits that during the last ice age (approximately 50,000-10,000 BP, or years before the present), humans were able to migrate from Siberia to Alaska, crossing over the land bridge between the continents that had been revealed by dropping sea levels as massive glaciers formed all over the world. During this time, as many as four distinct migrations occurred over the land bridge between about 10,000-14,000 BP. Peoples migrated from Siberia, Eurasia, and coastal Asia, following the megafauna of the Pleistocene, such as mammoth and mastodon. Other megafauna included giant species of animals that are familiar to us today, such as beavers and sloths.

    The greatest supporting evidence of this theory is the extensive homogeneity of the North American Clovis culture, so named for the archaeological site at which it was first identified. Clovis peoples were long considered to be the first people to inhabit the Americas. Archaeologists theorize that Clovis peoples came over the land bridge and down a glacier pass to the east of the Rocky Mountains sometime between 12,000-11,000 BCE, eventually spreading through much of North America.

    Screenshot (189).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Clovis Points | Examples of a Clovis Point from the Rummells-Maske Site (13CD15) Cedar County, Iowa. Clovis was once accepted as a defining characteristic of the first group of humans to come to the Americas, sometime between 10,000-14,000 BP. This assertion has been increasingly questioned as more and more well-documented archaeological sites with older dates have emerged. Author: Bill Whittaker Source: Wikimedia Commons

    A second theory focuses on Pacific sea travel. The coastal migration theory suggests that some peoples arrived in the Americas through following the coast of land across Asia and the Bering Land Bridge, down the coast of North America, all the way to South America. The coastal migration theory is bolstered by the rich marine environment which would have supported maritime peoples well. Travel by boat would also have been much faster and easier than the route overland, thus allowing peoples to spread throughout the Americas much more quickly. The most compelling evidence supporting the coastal migration theory comes from archaeological sites in South America that predate the North American Clovis sites. Sites like Monte Verde in Chile, dated 14,800-12,500 BCE and Taima-Taima in western Venezuela, dated to 13,000 BCE, contradict the notion of “Clovis first.” However, archaeological sites that support coastal migration theory number much fewer than Clovis sites, as the coastline of the Pleistocene era now lies under the Pacific Ocean, due to rising sea levels.

    Although the two theories might seem to be at odds with each other, most historians and archaeologists now accept that both theories are probably correct, and that human migration to the Americas occurred over a very long span of time, over land and by boat. Linguistic evidence supports this combination of migration theory, as indigenous coastal languages are very different than interior languages throughout much of the Americas. The two theories also work together in that many South American sites date 500-1,000 years older than the oldest North American sites, a real problem for the Bering Land Bridge theory.

    In more recent years, some archaeologists and historians have supported alternate migration theories. These theories are uniformly much more controversial than the Bering Land Bridge and coastal migration theories. One of the more notable theories is the Solutrean hypothesis, or the Atlantic coastal model. This model argues that Clovis peoples came not from Asia over the land bridge, but instead were descended from the Solutrean culture of Europe. Clovis peoples, it asserts, arrived in the Americas through coastal migration, hugging the ice sheet that spanned the ice age Atlantic. A handful of archaeologists support this theory, based on perceived similarities between Clovis and Solutrean points. However, the majority of archaeologists discount the theory, citing the lack of resources to support travelers on the ice sheet and the 5,000 years between the Solutrean and Clovis cultures. Genetic studies of indigenous peoples across the Americas also show the Solutrean hypothesis to be unlikely, as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and DNA haplogroups show evidence of multiple migrations from Asia, starting at about 30,000 BP.3 In contrast, no study has ever shown conclusive proof of European genetic markers among the Native American population before 1492.

    Finally, a handful of sites across the Americas have unearthed portions dating 50,000-33,000 BCE, tens of thousands of years before the earliest coastal migration sites were established. These sites, including the earliest components of the Monte Verde site in Chile and the Topper site in South Carolina, are hotly contested by many archaeologists, who claim that the stone tools from the levels attributed to these early dates are not man-made, but natural formations. Moreover, 50,000 years BP stretches the boundaries of radiocarbon dating: as dates go further back in time, dating becomes less and less accurate, leading many more to call these early dates into further question. For now, these early radiocarbon dates are largely seen as aberrations, which offer no conclusive proof of human existence in the Americas before about 20,000 years ago.

    Before You Move On


    Current estimates hold that 43-65 million people inhabited the Western hemisphere at contact. There was a great deal of cultural diversity amongst this population, including languages, social and political structures, religious rituals, and deity worship. Each of these hundreds of groups had one or more creation or origin story explaining where they came from as a people as well as their relationship to the world around them. Origin stories help to define groups as a people and form an important part of the culture. Scientific explanations of the origin of humans in the Americas focus on ways that the first people migrated to the Americas. The two most important and well-accepted of these theories are the Bering Land Bridge and the coastal migration. Most archaeologists now accept that both theories are correct, and date the earliest arrival of humans in the Americas to 20,000-14,000 BP. Each of these theories supports human migration from Asia. The Solutrean hypothesis, a more controversial theory, argues that the first humans of the Americas descended from the Solutrean culture of Europe. Genetic studies of indigenous peoples across the Americas, however, show the unlikelihood of this hypothesis.

    Test Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Origin Stories

    1. explain where a group came from
    2. explain a group's place in the world and their relationship to it
    3. promotes a common cultural identity
    4. all of the above


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Clovis points are most closely identified with which migration theory?

    1. Bering Land Bridge Hypothesis
    2. Coastal Migration Theory
    3. Solutrean Hypothesis
    4. European Origin


    This page titled 1.1: Origins is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.