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Reopening the Question of the
Origin of Pre-Columbian People

By Orson Scott Card
June 12, 1997

The 16 June 1997 issue of New Yorker contains an article that Mormons should read with great interest: Douglas Preston, "The Lost Man" (New Yorker, June 16, 1997, pp. 70-81). Inevitably, some Mormons will immediately assume that this article "proves" the Book of Mormon. It does nothing of the kind. But it does have the potential of reopening the question of the origin of pre-Columbian people in the Americas, tearing up and throwing away the old monolithic opinion (already tattered a bit at the edges) that all the oldest inhabitants of the Americas were of Mongoloid origin and came from Asia over the Bering Strait land bridge during the last ice age.

The article centers around the finding of "Kennewick Man," a skeleton washed out of a riverbank by flooding of the Columbia River. Preliminary study yielded the firm conclusion that the skeleton was 9,000 years old, of caucasoid physical structure, and linked by an arrowhead to "Clovis man," a culture lacking in skeletons and of evidence of development here in America. The hypotheses of the anthropologists involved a European origin, and even an icebridge over the north Atlantic, though other evidence (including a possible link to the Ainu of Japan) points back to the Bering Strait but has a racially different people doing the first crossing.

However, before detailed and widespread studies could be completed, the skeleton was seized by the Army Corps of Engineers on the basis that it was a "native American" body and by law had to be returned to the tribe of origin. Never mind that the man's "tribe" probably had been subsumed in or exterminated by the tribe now claiming the body as its own (or an earlier tribe); never mind that the true history of the ebb and flow of tribal ownership of land over the centuries and millennia make it impossible to determine even vaguely the "tribe of origin" of a skeleton even a thousand, let alone nine thousand, years old. The politics of political correctness trump the needs of genuine scientific inquiry, and the issue is now in the courts.

That is the thrust of the article. For Mormons, however, the scientific issue, while important (as all seeking of knowledge is important), will be less interesting than the fact that the existence of this skeleton, and several others that promise to yield similar information, should destroy the stultifying consensus of pre-Columbian archaeology that has been used as a bludgeon by anti-Mormons to attack the Book of Mormon and by non-Mormon scientists to dismiss all Book of Mormon archaeological claims. In a nutshell, the most fundamental premises of that consensus seem now to be false. Human settlement of the Americas almost certainly comes from multiple points of origin, and the dominance of the mongoloid-origin racial type merely reflects the competitive success of one of those waves of settlement. And, as with the Ainu of Japan, it is impossible at present to know where or how recently pockets of the other racial types may have survived into near-modern times.

Thus the door is reopened to the near-certainty of the coexistence of different peoples of different physical type, different regions of origin, and of course different language and culture in the Americas within the past ten thousand years.

Of course, some Mormons will take no comfort from any of this, being unwilling to consider any artifact dating before 4,000 bc as genuine. For those of us who take a more flexible view of the calendar and a less symbolic view of the flood account, the 9,000-year-old dating of Kennewick man dovetails nicely with the probable date of Jaredite-era migrations, and the placement of similar remains as widely as southern France and Ainu Japan fits rather well with Hugh Nibley's speculations on the nature of Jaredite culture.

Race being a flexible concept, it is also worth pointing out the obvious: This finding does not in any way diminish the historical claims of current native American tribes, or change their moral position vis-a-vis European cultures that displaced them, except that the present utter dominance of European-African races, languages, and cultures in the Americas serves as a sample of exactly the kind of displacement that the native-Americans might well have inflicted on their predecessors in this place. This is, as the writer of the article points out, the pattern of human migrations forever: One population or culture displaces, absorbs, or overlays another. We are all immigrants to the New World. But this does not relieve the most-recent displacers from the moral obligation to make decent amends for the losses and suffering of the most recently displaced.

And for Mormons, we add another fillip: Every people who came here and stayed was led by God. This can neither be proved nor disproved by science, and the Book of Mormon remains the only witness to that idea. Scientists, doing their work well, will never prove the Book of Mormon true. But they will, eventually, displace the bad science of those who make the perpetual mistake of thinking that today's interpretation of today's evidence is the final word on any matter of natural or human history. As linguists have also found, scholars and scientists of pre-Columbian America have been particularly blind and arrogant, resisting any sort of evidence or idea that might knock down their little house of cards. The Book of Mormon was merely the easiest evidence for them to dismiss, given its supernatural origin. But now that physical and linguistic evidence have exposed the incorrectness of the old dogmas, perhaps we can enter a new era of openness in pre-Columbian studies, in which the scientific community finally insists that its members all act like scientists, holding all their conclusions in abeyance, always ready to re-examine old theories in the light of new findings. Till recently, those who acted most like scientists were treated with the least regard by that community, to its discredit.

The Umatilla Indians may succeed in hiding away this skeleton that could never have belonged to a member of their or any living tribe, but this is surely not the last skeleton that will be found, and today's politically-driven science law will eventually give way to law that allows scientists to do their work.

To pique your curiosity about the article, let me quote a few key passages. Out of context, they may be misleading; please get the article and read these passages in their proper setting.

"They [Owsley and Jantz] wrote, 'In terms of its closest classification, it does have a "European" or "Archaic Caucasoid" look, because morphometrically it is most similar to the Ainu from Japan and a Medieval period Norse population.' Additional early skeletons that they and others have looked at also show Caucasoid-like traits that, in varying degrees, resemble Kennewick Man's. Among these early skeletons, there are no close resemblances to modern Native Americans.

"But, even though the skeletons do look Caucasoid, other evidence indicates that the concept of 'race' may not be applicable to human beings of ten or fifteen thousand years ago. Recent studies have discovered that all Eurasians may have looked Caucasoid-like in varying degrees. In addition, some researchers believe that the Caucasoid typ first emerged in Western Asia or the Middle East, rather than in Europe. The racial differences we see today may be a late (and trivial) development in human evolution. If this is the case, then Kennewick may indeed be a direct ancestor of today's Native Americans -- and idea that some repliminary DNA and dental studies seem to support" (pp. 75-76)....

"If the Clovis people -- or their precursors -- had migrated to North America from Asia, one would expect to find early forms of their distinctive tools, of the right age, in Alaska or eastern Siberia. We don't. But we do find such artifacts in Europe and parts of Russia" (p. 76)....

"'To get to the kind of complexity you find in Clovis tools, I see a long technological development,' Bradley said. 'It isn't one person in one place inventing something. But there is no evolution in Clovis technology. It just appears, full blown, all over the New World, around eleven thousand five hundred years ago. Where's the evolution? Where did that advanced Clovis technology come from?'" (p. 77, italics in original)....

"'For a long time, most archeologists have been afraid to challenge the Beringian Walk paradigm,' Bradley said. 'I don't want to try to convince anybody. But I do want to shake the bushes. You could put all the archeological evidence for the Asian-Clovis connection in an envelope and mail it for thirty-two cents. The evidence for a European-Clovis connection you'd have to send in a U.P.S. box, at least'" (p. 77).

"'The north Asians may have been carrying diseases that the Folsom and the Clovis had no resistance to' -- just as European diseases wiped out a large percentage of the Native American population after the arrival of Columbus. Stanford explained that at several sites the Paleo-Indian tradition of Clovis and Folsom was abruptly replaced by Archaic Indian traditions, which had advanced but very different lithic technologies. The abruptness of the transition and the sharp change in technology, Stanford feels, suggest a rapid displacement of Folsom by the Archaic cultural complex, rather than an evolution from one into the other" (p. 80).

Enough quotes. Read the article and draw your own inferences. One thing is sure: Students of Book of Mormon culture and archaeology cannot read this article with anything other than pleasure.

Copyright © 1997 Orson Scott Card
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