The “Oppressed” and Archaeological Theories

Who indeed.

Here’s a question for you: How did the first Americans get here?

This is among the most contentious questions in archaeology. As Jim Adovasio explains in The First Americans, grappling with this question is not for sissies. American archaeologists come to fisticuffs over this question at conferences (although they usually make up over several drinks at the hotel bar, a common conflict resolution strategy among archaeologists). Anyone even thinking about addressing the question can expect vicious and sometimes personal attacks from other scientists, Native tribes, or the public.

Here’s the bottom line: Despite tantalizing shreds of evidence for an ice cap crossing from Europe or island-hopping across the Pacific, most archaeologists today agree that the much-maligned Bering Strait theory has the greatest weight of evidence behind it, at least for now. The genetic and skeletal evidence is most compelling: Modern Native Americans’ Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA seems to point right back to northern Asia, and Native Americans share the distinctive shovel-shaped incisor trait with Asians alone.

The book is never closed in archaeology–new evidence comes in and theories are modified. I hesitate to repeat this because to me and most other educated people, this process is common knowledge. But there are some theories with more evidence than others. It’s not a free-for-all, where everyone’s opinion has equal weight. And mentioning this does not make you “racist,” even if the weight of evidence tends to go against the pet theory of the current “disadvantaged” group or tribe.

At my little museum, we have reason to explain archaeological theories about everything from the first Americans to the origins of modern humans. Oh, how often I encounter angry resistance. Yes, I know that some (very vocal) Native Americans like to think that they were “always here,” that some divine being just plopped them down in North America and that’s that. If you want to believe that, I’ll die for your right to do it. Nor do I, as an atheist, believe that all my beliefs are rational. They’re often not. And not all of them have to be, on a daily basis.

But I don’t condone tossing all logical thought in the name of faith or politics or whatever drives you. A time comes when you have to admit that the weight of empirical evidence supports one thing or another. I don’t know about the  Bering Strait theory–as I said, it’s up for revision–but I do know that there’s zero, zip, nada, evidence for human occupation in the western hemisphere before 30,000 years ago AT THE ABSOLUTE EARLIEST, and there is evidence of human occupation elsewhere in the world significantly earlier than that, in a line that starts somewhere around east Africa and the Middle East and radiates out from there.

I’m not surprised that people hold irrational beliefs. Everyone does sometimes. What always gets me is the double standard in mainstream tolerance of these things. The same visitors who scold me for not scrapping modern science to support the poor Native American tribes would probably call the police if I asked them to support Christian creationism. In other words, the “oppressed” are justified in holding irrational beliefs, but Christians should be ostracized for it.

I’m a grump, it’s true. But I get tired of playing these games whenever I have to talk about archaeology at the museum. Most of the time I take the “everyone’s entitled to their beliefs” track, with an “but this is the science” addendum. I think it’s the best track. In my experience, you’ll never change someone’s mind about something irrational. Unless they’re stupid–and most people aren’t–they realize it’s irrational and have their own reasons for thinking it.

But the implications for public policy alarm me. I don’t want anyone’s irrational thinking dominating my life or my career, “oppressed” or not. People who support stupid theories because of politics should think about this before they act.


2 responses to “The “Oppressed” and Archaeological Theories

  1. At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we interpret a Mississippian culture prehistoric mound complex, prehistory in general, and contemporary Native Americans of the region. We have an exhibit on the Choctaw Indians where we describe their origin story of originating from Nanih Waiya Mound. We also have a First Americans exhibit on crossing the Bering Strait, etc. etc. We present both interpretations. Bering Strait is the hard science; Nanih Waiya is the Choctaw belief. As a museum that interprets Native Americans, it would seem odd not to acknowledge their story. In my five years at Chucalissa, this approach has never been raised by visitors, Native American or otherwise, as a problem.

    • Hi Robert,

      We interpret many cultures, not just Native American, but we do present both archaeological theory and origin stories. We do not, however, present the Native origin story as “science,” but as mythology and tradition. I start to have problems when people want to interpret origin stories as scientific evidence without any other material evidence to support them. I have an even further problem when people think that presenting archaeological evidence that disagrees with the traditional stories is somehow racist or not as valid. Many visitors understand the difference between material evidence and oral tradition, but some more militant voices have come to the fore in recent years, and it’s those voices I disagree with. They’re certainly in the minority, but they’re there in force. If you haven’t encountered these more militant voices, you are luckier than we are. Perhaps the politics of our areas are different.



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