Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 2: Racism, Eugenics and When Natives Came to America
In Part 1 of our exclusive series we examined how the discovery and examination of the ancient Mexican skeleton, Naia, has led scientists to once again rethink the origins of American Indians.
Since the early 16th-century, questions about the origins of American Indians spurred a lively theological debate. By the mid-19th-century, science was taking over, but that did not end the debate, indeed, it only made it more contentious than ever.
On July 18, 1866 the distinguished geologist and scion of a prominent and intellectual Massachusetts family, Josiah Whitney, wrote to his younger brother, the linguist and philologist William Dwight Whitney, of a stunning find at the bottom of a gold mine in Calaveras County, California.
The great excitement now at the office is the discovery of a human skull at a depth 153 feet below a series of volcanic beds with intercalated gravels. I have just returned from the locality, and we have the skull in the office. It is a bony fide find of the greatest interest.
Whitney, a professor at Harvard, was the first “State Geologist” of California. For his scientific achievements, the highest mountain in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, and a glacier, Whitney Glacier, would be named after him. Whitney examined the skull, which was still partially encrusted in gravel and volcanic ash and covered with a thin sheen of calcium carbonate. Although it was anatomically similar to modern humans, the skull was almost completely fossilized, strong evidence it was probably very old.
The only way to know how old, in those days, was to determine the age of the stratum in which it was buried, but Whitney had not discovered the skull. The skull was apparently found by the mine operator who then gave it to a Wells Fargo agent, who than passed it on to a doctor in San Francisco, who then contacted Whitney. Whitney visited the site, but it was now five months after the discovery and the shaft where it was found had been abandoned and become filled with water. Despite not being able to confirm the exact stratigraphic position of the skull, and therefore its age, Whitney went ahead and announced his preliminary results in a short paper before the California Academy of Sciences.
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