A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Two new books go beyond the rhetoric of the debate.
The Spanish Jesuit Fray José de Acosta suggested in his 1590 Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias that the Americas were initially settled by people from Asia. He also proposed overland and coastal migrations as possible routes of entry. In 1648, the philosopher and traveler Thomas Gage argued that Mongoloid peoples from Asia likely entered the Americas through the Bering Strait. Other writers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suggested that the First Americans might have arrived in boats from Europe or from China or other areas in the Pacific. Amazingly, these explanations sound like recent articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time.
Despite centuries of debate, there still is no consensus on the initial peopling of the Americas, only controversies and contradictions. While some of the arguments have been logically consistent, others have confused possibilities with probabilities and certainties. Two recently published books try to go beyond the rhetoric of the debate by putting it into a historical context and presenting ideas about the way archaeology should proceed in the twenty-first century: The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory, by Thomas D. Dillehay, and America Past, America Present: Genes and Languages in the Americas and Beyond, edited by Colin Renfrew.
These two new books remind us that we should never give up the archaeological exploration for possibilities or the calculation of probabilities. Dillehay asks that readers not be pessimistic or get the impression that the discipline is overwhelmed with difficulties and reminds us that these are exciting times to be an archaeologist. Renfrew's volume does not suggest that we abandon the search for early sites; rather, he points to exciting new directions to look for answers about the initial peopling of the Americas. Rather than seeking clues by measuring bones, stones, and pots, more precise answers to questions about the ancestry of American Indians may instead be found in molecular genetics and historical linguistics.
Kenneth B. Tankersley is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Kent State University.