Happy Indigenous People’s Day! Time for a Paradigm Shift.

October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once known as Columbus Day.  Why celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead?  There’s just so much more to celebrate! For starters, 529 years in the Americas is a mere blip on the radar.  If you want impressive numbers, how about FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS of surviving and thriving in the wildly diverse, super-challenging environments of the Americas? Sailing up somewhere with guns and armies and “conquering” it is easy mode. Walking (or paddling, as new science suggests) into the Americas with just stone tools and small bands of resourceful people, then managing to populate the entire continent, now that’s an accomplishment. 

In this undated photo, an Indigenous American family smiles for the camera

Indigenous people in the Americas or wherever they are found on earth are, and have always been, absolute masters of ingenuity, craft, courage, and resourcefulness.  For these reasons, among so many others, we celebrate them today.

Dignity,” a monumental sculpture in South Dakota, by Claude Lamphere. Photo: KlemdyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as we are re-writing the old narrative of Columbus Day, recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics are re-writing an old narrative of when the first Indigenous people arrived in the Americas, and how they arrived.  Narrow views are expanding dramatically, and what they are revealing is a world that is older, richer, and much more complex than was once believed. 

A powwow dancer, Milwaukee, 2008. Photo:
CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Clovis First” theory was first formulated in the early 20th century, and rigorously defended as orthodoxy until only recently.  Clovis First states that during the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, a  few small groups of Siberian peoples walked across a dry land bridge that connected Asia and the Americas as they were following their favorite prey, the Mammoth.  Over the next few thousand years, they gradually migrated down the entire American landmass, leaving distinctive spear points, called “Clovis Points,” as they went.  For decades, Clovis First was THE Paradigm of Indigenous migration to the Americas, and archaeologists with possible conflicting evidence were often ridiculed as crackpots.

A fanciful recreation of an ancient American mammoth hunt from a children’s book of American history, 1885.

Then came the 1997 discovery of Monte Verde, an ancient Indigenous site in Chile.  Tools and artifacts found there were showing dates one thousand years before Clovis!  Monte Verde indicated the old picture was not complete, and that people were living in South America long before the Clovis arrival.  It also raised an interesting possibility that the population of the Americas was something that may have happened by people paddling down the coasts in canoes or other watercraft.  So much for the on-foot, on-land, single-origin paradigm of Clovis First?  Defenders of Clovis First hung on and subjected Vanderbilt University archaeologist Tom Dillehay to years of rigorous examination before the discovery was accepted as fact.

Tlingit women in their canoes, c. 1900, Alaska

Then came the incredible discovery at the Tapper site in Savannah, Georgia.  In 2004, after many years of very careful and methodical excavation, a team lead by Dr. Al Goodyear dug below where Clovis Points had been found and discovered artifacts conclusively dated to 50,000 years ago.  Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists like Goodyear, Dillehay, and Michael Waters of the Center for the study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, an old scientific paradigm has truly changed, and Clovis First has been laid to rest.  

Aztec Dancers in Mexico City, 2018. Photo:
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As this article is being written, another set of evidence has arrived in the public eye – fossilized footprints in White Sands, New Mexico that reveal people were walking on American soil 23,000 years ago.  When the evidence is indisputable, even old, long-held ideas have to change.  According to Michael Waters, the consensus now is that the population of the Americas “was a process with people probably arriving at different times and taking different routes and potentially coming from different places.”  The door is open for new questions, new avenues of research, and new understandings that truly do justice to the complexity of the Indigenous experience.  Happy Indigenous People’s Day.  

An Inuit Mother and Child Rubbing Noses, Alaska, 1950.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Orthodoxy of Clovis First: https://bradshawfoundation.com/america/clovis_first/

The Tapper Site: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

The Paradigm Shift from Clovis First: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/native-people-americans-clovis-news?loggedin=true

The Monte Verde Site: https://anthropology.net/2008/05/08/earliest-known-archaeological-evidence-of-americans-found-in-monte-verde-chile/

The Story of an Early Challenge to CF and How it was Received: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jacques-cinq-mars-bluefish-caves-scientific-progress-180962410/

The White Sands Footprints: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/science/ancient-footprints-ice-age.html

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