Sunday, July 16, 2023

Walking back prehistory.

 Things aren't much calmer for me personally this weekend, but I'm going to do an actual post anyway.

mj0007 | Deposit Photos

That's a Clovis point. Although it's not the first Clovis point ever discovered; the first one was found not far from where I'm writing this -- at Blackwater Draw near Clovis, NM. In 1929, a road crew there ran across a big pile of woolly mammoth bones, and mixed in with the bones were spear points that looked a lot like this one -- clearly crafted by human hands. Subsequent archaelogical research dated the spear points to oh, about 13,000 years ago. That tracks with the theory that humans came to the Americas by way of a land bridge across the Bering Strait around that time, as the last Ice Age ended. So for almost a century, the accepted wisdom has been that Clovis Man was the first human in the Americas.

Which is great, as long as you don't think about the evidence of earlier human occupation that keeps turning up.

Take, for example, this story from the Associated Press this week: Researchers in Brazil have discovered some bones of giant sloths that were clearly worked by human hands and maybe even worn as jewelry. The researchers have dated these bone pendants, and they say they're 25,000 to 27,000 years old -- thousands of years older than Clovis Man.

And then there are the fossilized footprints at White Sands National Park, also not far from where I'm writing this. Archaeologists have used radiocarbon dating to estimate that those footprints are between 21,000 and 23,000 years old -- not quite as old as the giant sloth pendants, but not as recent as Clovis Man, either. 

National Park Service

At the time, White Sands was an inland lake, and the people who left the footprints shared their watering hole with mammoths, giant sloths, and camels. Yes, camels! 

It turns out there's a word for "camel" in Keres, the language spoken by members of Acoma Pueblo. Kim Pasqual-Charlie of the Acoma Tribal Historical Preservation Board is quoted in an article about White Sands in the most recent edition of El Palacio magazine as saying, "But how can we have that word if we'd never seen a camel?"

In other words, science is beginning to catch up with the wisdom in Native legends about how they have always been here. Archaeologists and anthropologists have ignored or scoffed at those stories for decades. Now? Maybe not so much. Science is discovering evidence that glaciers advanced and receded multiple times over the eons, and that could have allowed for the peopling of the Americas a whole lot earlier than once thought.

(Then there's the possibility that the Bering land bridge wasn't the only migratory route taken by early humans. There's DNA evidence that Polynesians had contact with South American tribes around 1200 CE, a few centuries before Columbus. And theories of pre-Columbian contact with people of the Americas abound -- although none are early enough to account for those giant-sloth-bone pendants.)

Still, there's pushback from some archaeologists, who want more proof of earlier settlements before they give such theories credit. I get that's how science is supposed to work. But there's also a well-documented tendency among Whites to disbelieve that Native Americans could have had an ancient, advanced civilization on this continent. That's how we've gotten theories that, y'know, savage Indians couldn't possibly have created things like the Great Circle Earthworks in Ohio, or Cahokia in southern Illinois, or Chaco Canyon here in New Mexico. Those things must have been created by a lost tribe of Israel. Or survivors from the fall of Atlantis. Or aliens! 

Because to admit that ancestral Native Americans created those things would require that we also admit how heinous our treatment of modern-day Native Americans has been. It's on par with the way we've treated Black Americans -- and to be honest, we as a society aren't ready to confront that, either, let alone atone for it.


I want to talk about one other thing that was in the El Palacio article. Western society puts a lot of stock in dates: humans came to the Americas 13,000 -- no, 25,000 -- no, maybe even 50,000 years ago. (Yes, there's some evidence for it.) How can Native Americans say they've always been here? Fifty thousand years is a hell of a long time, but it's not forever

In response, the author of the article quotes Dr. Joe Watkins, an archaeologist with Archaeological and Cultural Education Consultants in Tucson, AZ, and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Watkins observes that Westerners define themselves in opposition to others, in finding what makes them -- us -- superior to others. (See my point about Cahokia, etc., above.) He goes on: "But for us, I believe, history is a way of recognizing connections and relationships, relationships with non-human people. The Western perspective is largely irrelevant. It is beside the point."

He says, "On the Indigenous side, it doesn’t matter putting dates. Philosophically, we were never anywhere else."


If you have an interest in this stuff -- and if you've gotten this far, I have to assume you do -- I encourage you to read the article in El Palacio. I found it fascinating. Here's the link again


These moments of ancient blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Plus you have to consider, if the Brazilian evidence is 25,000 to 27,000 years old, how long did it take for the paleo-Indians to get there from the land bridge? That had to have taken a few 100 or 1000 years also. Personally I’m always excited to hear of new evidence pushing the time frame back further and further.