Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Native American mysteries

Back in the misty darkness of time - 20-25 years ago, say - I wrote a newspaper feature about how, as the last Ice Age finally was receding, ancient Lake Missoula would constantly fill with glacial meltwater and then flush, inundating much of western Washington State before rushing down through the Columbia Gorge and out to sea. In passing, I noted that while the current consensus appeared to be that Indians had not yet come to the New World in that 15,000-year-old time frame, there were increasing indications that maybe Native Americans already were plentiful. If that was the case, I said, most living in the area would have been washed away.

Now, a half-blink of geological time later, further excavations - and vast improvements in genetic investigations - have rather solidly proved that the decades-old "Clovis-point" theory that Native Americans first arrived through an ice corridor that only opened around 12,000 years ago is, as they say, history. It turns out the first Americans arrived before the last glacial maximum - well over 20,000 years ago ... maybe really well over. There remain other mysteries, like skulls that keep turning up that speak to African or Australian origins.

But despite mysteries, genetic testing has cleared up a lot (even as it raises more questions). Most of us have learned that American Indians have a "Mongoloid" appearance because their forbearers came across the Ice-Age dry Bering Straight from Siberia, chasing mastodons or whatnot. But genetic results show American Indians have varied genetic lines, including those also from the ancient "beachcombers" who settled along the east Asian coast and mid-Asian types who often contain genetic markers found in Europe.

Hence, maybe Kennewick Man.

All this is complicated (indeed, far more complicated than I've indicated. I haven't even mentioned mitochondrial DNA, or that neat part of the Y chromosome that isn't mixed up like a salad in reproduction. And so on.). But I find it cool that Native American origins, like Native Americans themselves, are a hell of lot more complicated than condescending Europeans always have supposed.

Maybe sometime in the future I'll talk about how for so many centuries, Europeans assumed that art, trade, - hell, the seeds of civilization - must have originated in Europe. I smile at the thought.

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