How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory

Alex Ewen

Over the past few weeks, new scientific discoveries have rekindled the debate over the Bering Strait Theory. Two of the discoveries were covered recently in Indian Country Today. The first “More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory,” dealt with the growing problem of “science by press release,” as scientific studies hype their conclusions to the point that they are misleading; and the second, “DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory,” discussed how politics can influence science, and the negative effects these politically-based scientific results can have on Native peoples.

RELATED:  More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory

RELATED: DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory

It is generally assumed that the Bering Strait Theory has almost universal acceptance from scientists. So, for example, the New York Times, in an article on March 12, “Pause Is Seen in a Continent’s Peopling” stated unequivocally that “The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago,” with the new wrinkle that maybe on their way from Asia Indian ancestors laid over in the Bering Strait region (Beringia) for thousands of years before traveling on to the Americas.

Therefore it is usually presumed that the primary critics of the theory must be anti-science, like the “creationists” who argue against evolution, or New Age pseudo-scientific conspiracy theorists. Thus in 1995, when the late Sioux philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. published Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact and challenged the Bering Strait Theory, he was savagely attacked by many scientists who lumped him in with those fringe groups.

The vitriol that poured from some of the harshest critics, such as John Whittaker, a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, who referred to Deloria's book as "a wretched piece of Native American creationist claptrap,” seemed excessive. The critics also demonstrated that they clearly did not comprehend Deloria’s argument. Red Earth, White Lies, embroidered by Deloria’s wry sense of humor and rambling musings, shows he was not anti-science, but rather anti-scientist. In particular, he was against those scientists who held narrow views of the world, who had no respect for other people’s traditions, who fostered a cult of superiority either for themselves or for their society, and who were afraid to search for the truth unless it already conformed with established opinion.

Deloria also argued that science, when studying people, was not neutral. In his view, some scientific theories harbored social and political agendas that were used to deprive Indians and other minorities of their rights. Many of the assumptions that underlay certain scientific principles were based on obsolete religious or social views, and he urged science to shed these dubious relics. The issue for Deloria was not science vs. religion (or tradition), it was good science vs. bad science, and in his view, the Bering Strait Theory was bad science.


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Submitted by shadowdragon42 on
Evolutionist use the Bering Strait theory also. Just to prove the point of Native Americans and other non white races are inferior. We natives know where we came from.

Sandyeggogirl's picture
Submitted by Sandyeggogirl on
Umm... I am a Native American Studies major and have professors who are linguists and I can tell you that the information in this article isn't shared by the academic community. It would seem that confirmation bias might be a factor here?

natwu's picture
Submitted by natwu on
Great article. Very informative for a lot of people who aren't in the field of anthropology. I think several things need to be noted for non-scientists. One, pretty much all scientific disagreements are treated pretty much like internet flamewars. You have no idea how petty and spiteful people can be until you read what scientists have to say about competing theories. This goes for almost any scientific issue but it's especially hot in the field of anthropology. Take "out of Africa" or whether or not neanderthals and sapiens interbred. Lots of vitriol. Those who propose a theory have a lot invested in it and tend to treat it like dogma until absolutely proven otherwise. I am less worried about those who will defend the Bering Strait theory and the Clovis Barrier to the death than those who are trying to use findings like Kennewick Man to say that Indians weren't the first or to imply that Europeans sort of co-discovered the Americas. Second, while linguistic theory has a lot of good stuff to offer, it's very inexact. This is not to say that the linguists are wrong because I really don't doubt that they're right, but the fact is archaeologists haven't yet found anything that is 100% proof positive that the Clovis barrier has been broken. I don't mean that nothing has been found, but that we have the burden of proving to the doubters that they're wrong and as yet we can't. Third, thanks for calling Franz Boas one of the greatest American scientists. He was that, and a truly good man. One of the first to fight racism with science.

Submitted by Amicalola on
The quality of the journalism at Indian Country Today is outstanding. I am impressed that your editors allow you to write articles that cover a subject in sufficient detail . . . and also the lack of journalistic drivel on ICT. Also, virtually all of the comments by readers show maturity and the respect for other opinions. Sorry . . . I have not criticisms. This article is especially well written and intelligent.

Cilia Abbi
Cilia Abbi
Submitted by Cilia Abbi on
quando si dicono verità, senza ipocrisia, si viene sempre aggrediti da personaggi, che non hanno alcuna convenienza che si sappia la verità, e come in tutto il mondo, le teorie false e ipocrite, sono sempre quelle che hanno più successo, ma come Galileo dichiarava della rotazione della Terra intorno al sole, e per tale teoria fu incarcerato, perchè non doveva permettersi di contraddire la chiesa, per questo bisogna sempre lottare ed esprimere le verità che si conoscono, a testa alta, ignorando gli arroganti, perché al mondo c'è chi vuole sapere altre verità, oltre alla cavolate che gli scienziati ci propinano ogni giorno, facendoci credere cose che non sono vere, ma io dico che ognuno di noi, se ascolta il suo cuore sa dove è la verità, io mi fermo sempre alle cose che hanno un senso logico e corrispondono alla mia anima, e sono certa che tante persone, sentono col cuore quando c'è il vero, per questo, non bisogna fermarsi di fronte agli arroganti, ma continuare a riempire di verità il mondo, perchè molte persone come me e voi, vogliono vivere di verità. Leo Amici diceva sempre, "la verità è Amore"," la logica non è logica se non corrisponde alla verità", io sono cresciuta nella grandezza,delle sue parole, delle sue VERE VERITA', e i Nativi Americani nella loro cultura, mi riportano sempre al suo insegnamento, alle sue verità, per questo dico non fermiamoci di fronte all'arroganza, ma continuiamo a dire la verità, senza timore di chi la verità non la vuole riconoscere

derrico's picture
Submitted by derrico on
Excellent article! Really useful material (citations, quotes, etc.) for understanding the big picture and debunking what Vine called "the BS Theory." Thanks for doing this work!

aliberaldoseofskepticism's picture
Submitted by aliberaldoseofs... on
I would've avoided mentioning Deloria. Dude tried to attach the ndn 'brand' to Velikovsky's weird ideas about the history of Venus. (Do note that any force powerful enough to stop a planet's rotation would destroy it.)