Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 1: How Dogma Trumped Science
The discovery and examination of the ancient Mexican skeleton, Naia, has led scientists to once again rethink the origins of American Indians. While there has been a rancorous debate over some details regarding who the first peoples of the Americas might have been, the broader context is usually the Bering Strait Theory, the idea that Paleoindians walked from Asia over an ancient land bridge approximately 15,000 years ago. Among scientists, this theory appears unshakable, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it. Indeed, a host of scientific evidence, from linguistics to genetics, does not support the theory.
As recent scientific discoveries have undercut the Bering Strait Theory, a new hypothesis has emerged, the “Beringian Standstill Theory.” The Standstill hypothesis, which proposes that Paleoindians lived isolated in the land bridge area for almost 20,000 years before migrating to the Americas, is also a controversial conjecture that has questionable scientific merit.
The reason for the insistence by scientists in the primacy of the Bering Strait Theory is not because of science, but because of dogma. This is well known among the scientists, many of whom have chafed under its strictures. So in 1998, Dennis Stanford, director of the Paleoindian program at the Smithsonian Institution, coined the term “Clovis Police” to refer to those “die-hard archaeologists who insist upon Clovis as representing the earliest culture in the New World.” James Adovasio, known for his excavations of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, devoted an entire chapter of his 2002 book, The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery, to the “Paleo-police” who have frustrated his attempts to gain recognition for the antiquity of the site.
When genetic studies that proposed an ancient contact between Polynesians and American Indians – not in conformity with the Bering Strait Theory – were published by University of Hawaii geneticist Rebecca Cann, they were met with a swift and fierce rebuttal. Cann is a pioneer among geneticists, her research having developed the concept of the “Mitochondrial Eve” and the currently accepted “Out of Africa” theory of modern human origins. She was not someone to be trifled with, and she shot back in a letter in the American Journal of Human Genetics, dismissing much of her critics’ data, interpretations, and point of view; “Rather than make dogmatic statements, we feel that it is better to encourage the open exploration of this debate, with more genetic markers and the use of data already in the literature.”
But open exploration of the debate is not going to happen, because the debate itself is moderated by ideologues, who determine the evidence that may be used, and ignore the evidence that does not fit the theory. In order to understand why this is, one must look at the history of the Bering Strait Theory, which will only shed a little light on the development of science, but offers important lessons on how and why a dogma is created.
The Birth of a Theory
When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas in 1492, he set off an endless round of speculation in Europe regarding the lands and its people. By 1797, Benjamin Smith Barton could write in his book New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America that the “opinions of writers concerning the origin, or parental countries, of the Americans are as numerous as the tribes and nations who inhabit this vast portion of the earth.
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