Am I? It sounds like a dumb question, both the title of this post, and whether I’m a Native American. After all, my family came here from Russia. But I was born here, in California, as were my parents. (That’s not true – my father was born in Pennsylvania.) More or less by definition, I’m not only native and American, but I’m a native and not a naturalized American. The only sense I can’t properly call myself a “Native American” is the sense in which that phrase has taken on a specific meaning. One that doesn’t include me.
I see three possible ways to define a Native American, and we’ve just struck one of them down.
- Being born in America, perhaps anywhere in the New World.
- Being of the line that became human in the Americas. In this sense, we’re all Native Africans, and we’re all equal.
- Being descended of the first (or first surviving) humans to reach the Americas.
- Being of the same “race” as anyone we would collectively term a Native American.
The racial definition (#4) is the one we share, and not very much unlike #3. The differences are subtle, but interesting. Most westerners would say #3 is the correct answer, and interestingly, it takes us back to silly #2. How is this possible? Let’s ask another question.
Who Were the First Americans?
This is a hotly debated topic, although much of the controversy has been settling down. There are two possible explanations (three if you accept the Mormon doctrine that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri). Either the first humans to set foot in the continents of the New World were Siberians crossing the Beringia steppe, probably in pursuit of large game, or they were Australians or Polynesians who survived a disastrous mistake and whose descendants have been driven almost to extinction in Tierra del Fuego.
There are uncontested artifacts from human settlements in Alaska, from about 13,000 years ago. In fact, there are many. What this means, is that nobody can doubt people really did cross Beringia, the Bering Land Bridge. But were they the first to set foot here?
In the most extreme example, a single pregnant woman with a male fetus may have survived an accidental journey to South America from Polynesia. The first use of boats must have happened around 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, by people reaching Australia from southern Asia. This wave of human expansion – the first to reach new land, never reached by our protohuman ancestors – continued to New Zealand and surrounding islands.
Many of the tribes on these islands kept in contact with their neighbors, sometimes near and far. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, that one of these boats, aimed at a not too distant island, lost its way. Possibly in a storm – Polynesians today can read the waves and “sense” islands over the horizon the way many can read a face and see anger or anxiety. This is a finely honed skill, almost certainly not available in those ancient times. And yet, we should remember we’re talking about the world’s first sea farers. Even then, probably a large group set out, and a very small one survived the journey, if such a journey ever happened. When they landed, it was on the distant shores of a New World.
This “founder population” peopled the lands, and then was wiped out almost completely.
Most of the supposedly pre Clovis finds are in South America (Chile, Brazil, etc), as we’d expect. Monte Verde has been one of the more operatic chapters in our story, but is today widely accepted to have predated Clovis by at least 1,000 years. Humans lived in this part of Chile maybe 14,500 years ago. Among these finds are not only tools, but aloso human skeletal remains. Skulls found at many of these sites clearly resemble Australians, rather than the Mongolians who would become “Amerindians” of today. Mitochondrial DNA is ambiguous here, but modern day Tierra del Fuegans could be descended directly from the Polynesians they so closely resemble.
There are few of the coastal settlements we would expect to see on a “new” continent being populated by sea going people. Of course, this was during the last ice age, when much of the Earth’s water was locked in glaciers. The sea level was at the time much lower, so ancient coast we’d expect to find these sites near is underwater today. We need scuba divers to thoroughly explore the area!
What of the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia)?
The Bearing Sea today is about 50 miles at its narrowest point, and an average depth of 400 feet at its deepest. During ice ages, as we’ve seen, the waters retreat and lowlands rise up from the sea. The channel between Siberian Russia and Alaska opens up this way, exposing a land mass to connect the continents. This has happened countless times before mankind set foot on the bridge, and it will happen again – just not within our lifetimes.
Canada was a sheet of ice at the time, and not much else. It would be at least a millennium before our heros could cross to the south. When a corridor finally opened, running north by south across the Canadian ice sheet and letting out in the inland plains near Edminton, they found large animals with no fear of humans. These included elephants (well, mammoths, anyway), horses, giant sloths, saber tooth tigers, and more. Camels seem to have evolved here, as llamas, and crossed the same bridge, long ago under a very different climate.
At the all important Clovis site, a mammoth was found with a clearly man made spear tip in its ribs. Wherever mankind went, we managed to eradicate large game species. This is the “megafaunal crisis of the late Pleistocene” when animals that had survived millions of years died out within a few hundred. Giant lemurs, cow sized marsupial cats, and others have fallen victim around the globe, and it would be a surprise if we didn’t see it accompany the colonization of the New World. So why don’t we see this on the same scale in South America?
In any case, the Austronesian theory says the Bringia crossing was one way people came to the Americas, possibly out of many.
Who Deserves to be Called Native, Then?
Personally, I’d say anyone born or raised in the Americas, but I’m probably trivializing the question. If the hypothesis is true that the New World was peopled through successive migrations, then perhaps all of their descendants should be called natives. Or none of them, since all came from somewhere else, ultimately. This is probably the wrong answer, though, because some level of evolution continued for many thousands of years, adapting people to their environments.