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October 2005

America’s peopling:
More questions than answers

Since when has there been human life in our continent? Where did it come from? Are the native people we now see direct descendants from those original inhabitants? "At least now we know we don’t know", answers anthropologist Francisco Mena.

By Rosario Mena


"I'm quite skeptical about the real benefit of debating issues such as these", says anthropologist and professor Francisco Mena when one asks him about the first migrations to the American continent.

"Journalism is good for simplifying and making sketches, or speak only of what's more sensational. At the end of the day, this only hides or , which, in the end, hides or distorts scientific facts. What's true is that we do not know about when did the first men and women arrive to America. We only have some theories that are based on stronger or weaker evidence".

To put them under discussion is the how this investigator has chosen to face such a complex issue. There are some widely accepted definitions that say that America's first inhabitants came from Siberia, about 11,000 years ago. Some other theories are based on the belief that there was an original population that was lost, and that the native people we now see are not related to them.

How did they get here?
The theory about people coming to America all the way from Siberia is by now pretty much accepted. What these groups must have done was probably crossing from one continent to the other by way of the Bering Strait (now submerged), during the Ice Age glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. The ice made the sea level go down, leaving a solid path between Asia and America. That was the now missing Beringia continent.

Mena says that "most of the evidence we have points to the fact that Beringia did exist as a continent, and that it was a middle ground between Asia and America. Nevertheless, we can not be certain about how Asian people migrated here. They might have gotten here by way of boats. Probably, not by the Pacific Ocean (no technique at the time would have made that possible), since we have found no traces of people living in Easter Island before the year 400 a.C.".

Some scientists have raised the theory of people coming here from the North of Europe, all the way through the Atlantic. "Those statements are based on genetic arguments and the comparison of tools made of stone, but they do not really convince me", says Mena.

The anthropologist says that some archaeological discoveries in the South of Chile (around an area known as Monteverde, close to the city of Puerto Montt) are from way before this so-called migration from Siberia. That has made some investigators think that there might have been some people coming from the South, not the North.

"But that really lacks any base. To think that a group of men might have traveled all the way from the Antarctica is science-fiction, really. And for them to come from Australia would have been too difficult".


When did they get here?
It has been generally established that America had no human traces whatsoever before the year 9,000 b.C. This is based on the discoveries of pieces of pointed weapons that were probably used to hunt big and now extinct animals. The people who used those where the North American 'Clovis'.

"It has been a tribe widely studied in the US since the 40s", says Mena, "and for a long time everything that had to do with the peopling of South America was related to those studies".

But new discoveries have made it necessary to add a whole new perspective. According to Mena, "it is usually the pointed tools and extinct animals' remains what is identified with the American continent. But now we know that there was never people such as the Clovis in South America. Besides hunters, what we had here were mainly fishermen and vegetable collectors. Some of them used pointed weapons (the arch and the arrow arrived to America much later), but some didn't".

On the other hand, even the dates that were commonly used by investigators have now been under discussion. It used to be thought that South America had its first inhabitants about 10,000 years ago, but the information we now have brings us to (at least) some centuries before that (almost, at the same time as North America). That would mean that the Clovis were not America's first inhabitants.

Some previous dates have been traced in different parts of South America, specially around Monteverde, near Puerto Montt. The American investigator Tom Dillehay has had a surprising interest from the media, even with covers in National Geographic, Newsweek and Time magazines. In just one square-meter he found remains that could be traced back to 30,000 years ago. "There's still a lot to study, before getting to any definite conclusions, but what we've seen so far is really surprising. This would mean the existence of human traces that would be three times older than anything else ever found in America".

This is amazing data, of course, but Monteverde is also popular for other reasons. Mena explains that the place has shown an "extraordinary capacity for preservation. A combination of physical and chemical elements have permitted the conservation of organic material that could be more than 12,500 years old. The work done there has been excellent".

There's been methodological and theoretical elements that have influenced over the deep impact the Monteverde discoveries have caused so far. "Up until now, all those who believed there had been people before the Clovis had no way of proving it, so they were pretty much resigned to the established dogma. Dillehay's merit has been to use the same methodology that the clovinists had been using, but to put them under scrutiny".

According to what's been found in Monteverde, these first inhabitants were mainly collectors who developed some kind of technique to work with wood, and who had very good skills for finding and working with vegetable resources. "That was something we were not expecting", says the anthropologist.

More than giving out conclusions, Monteverde has opened the debate about when did the first men and women actually arrive to America.

"The truth is we don't know?, says Mena. ?Besides, the place has not been excavated again; nobody dares to. Since it is in Chile, it would be something that should be done by Chilean archaeologists, but the only ones that have done some work there are the ones on Dillehay's team. Nobody dares to go there on his/her own, since this is such a complex issue. There's a lot of pressure from the media and the scientific community, as well. It is a pain in the neck, really".

Was there a first and now extinguished population?
In America, there have been found less than thirty skeletons of more than 8,000 years of age. Most of them were found in North America ?one of the most famous is that of Kennewick, near Washington D.C. But there have also been some here in Chile, like that of Barrio Nuevo (Aysen) and Huentelauquen. Their physical characteristics would not allow us to link them to the Mongolians nor to other American natives. That's why some investigators have developed a theory about a first migration ?previous to that coming from Siberia and much smaller. The whole of that race would now be completely extinguished.

Francisco Mena believes that there are at least three arguments that can prove that theory wrong.

"First of all, the traces we have of those skeletons is minimal and in just a few has there been an actual analysis of their DNA. So we really have no facts about their genetic nature. Second, we have to consider that in every population we find diversity. Third, the Mongolian morphology that now is part of Americans' characteristics did not even exist 10,000 years ago; not even in Asia. So those first men and women could have perfectly come from Siberia, but with a complete different look, that began changing with time".

Even if we consider the theory of a second migration, Mena says that the differences among the current native people and those old skulls "do not necessarily imply an extinction, and not even a population replacement. Maybe it was just the crossbreed with people who arrived what made those archaic features disappear".

What we can say for sure is that now more than ever America's peopling and the origin of American men and women is an open question, and a true challenge for those who are serious on finding the truth. "?Now we know more than we used to", says Mena. "At least we know that we don't know"



 

 
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