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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Several articles recently called into question the origin of the Americas' Native people. Here are two of them. First, from the BBC:

Tribe challenges American origins

By Paul Rincon

BBC News Online science staff, at the BA festival

Some of the earliest settlers of America may have come from Australia, southern Asia, and the Pacific, new research suggests.

Traditional theories have held that the first Americans originated from northern Asia.

Dr Silvia Gonzalez conducted a study of ancient bones found in Mexico and found that they have very different characteristics to Native Americans.

The results are being presented at the BA Festival of Science this week.

Some of the ancient skulls she has looked at are more than 12,000 years old.

These skulls have long and narrow heads that are very different from the short, broad skulls of today's Native Americans.

'Controversial bomb'

One particularly well-preserved skull of a long-headed female, who has been dubbed Penon Woman, has been carbon dated to 12,700 years ago.

"They appear more similar to southern Asians, Australians and populations of the South Pacific Rim than they do to northern Asians," Dr Gonzalez, of Liverpool John Moores University, told the British Association's annual meeting in Exeter.

"We think there were several migration waves into the Americas at different times by different human groups."

She said there was very strong evidence that the first migration came from Australia via Japan and Polynesia and down the Pacific coast of America.

Dr Gonzalez said the research would be controversial. "[Native Americans] cannot claim to have been the first people there," Dr Gonzalez said.

She also hinted that DNA recovered from Penon Woman would corroborate measurements of the skulls. "We have extracted her DNA. It is going to be a bomb," Dr Gonzalez commented.

If proved correct, the findings might have implications for US legislation that covers the return of Native American remains and artefacts to present-day tribes.

Recently, a coalition of native tribes lost their claim to the remains of Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in Washington State.

The case was won by a group of scientists who wanted access to the remains for study.

Died out

A population of the long-headed individuals being studied by Dr Gonzalez had survived into historic times, she claimed.

This tribe, which lived on the Baja California peninsula, were called the Pericues. But they appear to have died out in the 18th Century because of disease.

Spanish missionaries reported that they were of a different racial type and had different customs to other Native Americans.

The results concur with a study of the Pericues carried out by Spanish researchers in 2003.

This also used measurements of the skulls to show that this population was only distantly related to contemporary Amerindian groups.

However, some scientists think that the older group of Americans may simply have evolved the features typical of present-day natives of the continent.

One study has shown marked differences in the skull shape of prehistoric and present-day Inuit populations.


From the Discovery Channel:

Study: Native Americans Weren't the First

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

Sept. 6, 2004 -- DNA analysis of skulls found in Baja California that belonged to an extinct tribe called the Pericues reveal that the Pericues likely were not related to Native Americans and that they probably predated Native Americans in settling the Americas, according to an announcement Monday.

The finding, released at the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) Festival of Science in Exeter, England, adds support to the theory that a number of groups arrived in the Americas via different routes and at varying times, possibly as early as 25,000 years ago.

The study also suggests that the two oldest known Americans -- Peñon woman and Kennewick Man -- might have belonged to the Pericues tribe.

Even before the DNA analysis, Silvia Gonzalez, lead author of the study and a geoarchaeologist from Liverpool John Moores University, noticed that the Pericues skulls were long and narrow, as opposed to the more broad and round features found in early Native American skulls.

"Because of their skull morphology, long and narrow (dolicocephalic) the Pericues could be related to the oldest Americans known, which are Peñon Woman in the Basin of Mexico at 12,755 before the present, and Kennewick Man at 9,700 years old," Gonzalez told Discovery News just before Monday's announcement.

"Hence, if this was true, they would be older than the Native Indians. The oldest dated Pericue material is only 3,000 years before the present, although there are cave paintings in Baja California dated to 7,500 BP and Clovis points that must be 11,000-11,500 years old."

The genetic study suggests that the Pericues did not originate in Northern Asia, where many experts believe Native Americans first came from. Instead, Gonzalez said the Pericues are closer to the ancient populations of southern Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific Rim.

The surprising link to early Australasian-Melanesian people could mean that the first Americans arrived in the New World in some kind of floating craft that traveled over the Pacific Ocean.

"A coastal Pacific migration route is possible," Gonzalez said.

She explained that the Pericues were a hunter-gatherer society that lived on shellfish, fish, cacti and other plants in the desert area of Baja California. Objects found in the area suggest that the Pericues used stone tools.

Gonzalez indicated that they had a complex burial system involving mortuary-like burial areas located both along the coast and in caves. She said they also used wooden spear throwers, and likely painted bones with red ochre, as early decorated shells and pearls have been found in Baja.

"The missionary descriptions indicated that the men were naked and the women wore grass skirts, and they were very tall and slim," Gonzalez added. "They became extinct during the 18th century due to the lifestyle changes imposed by the missionaries to a sedentary way of life."

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at The Natural History Museum London, told Discovery News, "This work is very important in adding further weight to the idea that the first inhabitants of the Americas did not resemble present-day Native Americans.

"These finds are physically distinct and some Mexican fossils have been dated close to the earliest known human occupation of the Americas," he said.

He added, "However, it is difficult to trace their point of origin as people 10,000 or 20,000 years ago did not look like their modern counterparts in many parts of the world, including Africa, Europe, and China.

"It is likely that southeast Asia 20,000 years ago was inhabited by people who more closely resembled present-day Polynesians or Australian aborigines so this could indeed be a source for the first Americans. They could have taken a coastal route to get there around the North Pacific Rim -- it seems unlikely that they came directly across the Pacific."

Silvia Gonzalez believes several migrations took place, with people coming from North East Siberia, the Western Pacific, and even from Europe.

So far, the fossil database in the Americas, beyond the more recent Native American finds, has proven to be quite sparse, perhaps due to weather-related erosion of remains. Gonzalez hopes future DNA studies, craniometrics (skull analysis), and additional evidence will shed more light on the Pericues and other early Americans.

Rob's comment
The stereotype here is Dr. Gonzalez's claim: "[Native Americans] cannot claim to have been the first people there." The articles have reinforced this claim by reporting it uncritically. The implication is that much of Native culture—its origin, history, and beliefs—is untrue and invalid.

Let's ignore the fact that many Native people say their cultures have existed in America forever—since the world was created. Let's concentrate solely on the science. What can we say about it?

1) The evidence increasingly suggests that Native people have been here for at least 20,000 years and maybe longer. Gonzalez's claim that a 12,000-year-old skull invalidates the scientific theory about Native origins is false. See Kennewick Man, Captain Picard, and Political Correctness for more information.

2) Suppose indigenous people from southern Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific Rim did come to America before anyone else. So what? As noted above, Native people don't claim northern Asia as their original home. Gonzalez's claim holds only if you postulate that Native Americans = northern Asians...but Native Americans aren't taking that position.

As noted by everyone from anthropologists to judges, being an Indian is a political classification only partly based on race. Tribes routinely absorbed slaves, captives, or remnants of bands into their midst. Many of these people came from different ethnic subgroups of the so-called Indian race; some came from races other than the so-called Indian race. Yet they became tribal members in good standing nonetheless.

If Natives from the southern Asia met Natives from northern Asia, they undoubtedly traded genes and cultures. The people whom Columbus encountered were a mix of everyone who came to this continent before the Europeans. Unless these southern Asians walled themselves off from contact once they populated America—and good luck proving that—today's Natives are their rightful inheritors.

Besides, questions of ownership don't depend on who came first. They depend on who occupied the place longest—who established ownership by custom or agreement. "Possession is 9/10th of the law, as the old cliché goes.

The real question isn't which strain of this north/south mixture came first, but which predominated. It's clear the people from the north had the deepest impact on Native culture. Their long presence gives them the moral and legal right to the land and its resources.

Moreover, it's not as if the (alleged) first arrivals were from a different hemisphere. There's a cultural continuum between northern and southern Asia—a core group of shared traits. If the first Americans did come from southern Asia, they had the same cultural background as people from northern Asia. Their common point of origin was simply located further back in time.

3) Recall that several Ice Ages covered the northern part of the continent. There may be a good reason we haven't found human remains between or before these frozen periods. Namely, because millennia of massive glaciers would've ground most human remains into dust.

If a million Natives inhabited the frozen north, we might have found a few of their remains under the ice. But if only a hundred or a thousand lived there, we'd have a hard time finding a trace of them. Yet their presence would uphold the claim that indigenous people from northern Asia came here first.

This point only applies if you think being here first matters. As noted above, I think being here longest is what matters. Native people have inhabited the Americas at least 12,000 years by Dr. Gonzalez's own reckoning. When non-Natives have lived here 12,000 years, they can argue that their claims are just as valid.

Related links
Kennewick Man, Captain Picard, and political correctness
Kokopelli a Hindu god?

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