Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 1: How Dogma Trumped Science

Alex Ewen

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.

RELATED: New Discovery Confirms Native American Views on Their Ancestry

RELATED: How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait 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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Taniitoy's picture
Submitted by Taniitoy on
Are any other countries as obsessed with the origin of its indigenous as the US?

HontasF's picture
Submitted by HontasF on
The evidence for the Bering Straight migration, which is part of the overarching "Out of Africa" theory is too strong to discount it completely. There weren't even large ape-like creatures for Native Americans to evolve from separately in the Americas, and there are no 2 or 3, or 4 million year old human like bones here. DNA points to the closest old world relatives being the Kamchatkan people... so does their looks. What does not really compute is the date. Accepting all of it why would an ice sheet stop well acclimated arctic dwelling people who know how to build boats? If people could navigate to Australia 50,000 years ago? Why not cross the straight 40-50 000 years ago? Those are the right questions to ask. Accusing all scientist of a racist conspiracy as it seems this article does is not the way to change minds. A closed fist, is met with a closed fist. An open hand is met with an open hand.

aliberaldoseofskepticism's picture
Submitted by aliberaldoseofs... on
One slight correction: The first one to suggest that Indians were lost Jews was Bartolomé de las Casas. It was an ad hoc hypothesis, since his opponent, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, said Indians were, in effect, not human. Less than a century later, José de Acosta concluded that Indians couldn't be Jews due to the absence of Jewish customs. So he developed his own ad hoc explanation, that some northwestern part of North America was connected to northeastern Asia. You can see this hypothetical connection on some 16th-century maps.

SacredCaramel's picture
Submitted by SacredCaramel on
It's not really an obsession. Many of the US government's treaties with American indigenous peoples are based on the concept of the indigenous peoples having "always" occupied the land. The US government has a history of breaking treaties on the flimsiest of excuses, so it is necessary for the legalities to keep pace with the science of American indigenous origins, which unfortunately doesn't always happen.

Pediowoman's picture
Submitted by Pediowoman on
I am not sure where you are going with you views on where the original Indians came from but I would like to set one thing clear. Dennis Stanford is not a friend of the Indians. He along with Bruce Bradley and their other sidekick Doug Owsley have brought back to the front pages an old and discredited theory of Europeans being the first people of this continent. Therefore, your support of Stanford really surprises me. These three people were part of the bunch promoting the name Paleo-American instead of Paleo-Indian to further disenfranchise the Indians. It would seem to me believing that white (Paleo-Americans) Europeans, were slaughtered by the recent ancestors of contemporary Indians would not be a very positive view of Indians of today, or their ancestors. This by the way is what the three fellows above are promoting. I am sure that they (all three of which are white) think that sounds a lot better than saying their ancestors slaughtered the descendants of Paleo-Indians, which according to the books I have read are a lot closer to the truth. Here are two great links for anyone wanting to read up on this.

zelbe1's picture
Submitted by zelbe1 on
Africa only remains important in this conversation because of the finding of remains. That being said, if we find other bones and remains that counter or adjust that existing data, logic says you scrutinize past findings over the new findings. Science is for sale and there are no real scientist anymore. They are all manufactured for religious and military purchase. Everything in a capitalist society is for sale. Technology, justice, science, religion, culture, values, the government, the military, news and information. That being said, since the early beginnings of this continents invasion of foreigners, information about natives has been consistently and intentionally wrong. I do not trust science because it has always been a Public Relations tool for the elite challenging and stifling progress and the evolution of new ideas and inventions. If its possible for remains to be found on one continent that arise eye brows, why is it so difficult to admit the origins of man is not from one place? Why are we always stuck in one dimensional thinking when it comes to indigenous people? Indians are studied from birth to grave, institutionalized and imprisoned, devout in faith and patriotism and have made landmark contributions to a nation that has been wrong on everything from Jesus to UFOs and Bigfoot, all of which they brought over when they came, so I frankly stop taking non-natives serious anymore whether its their president or high school janitor, they just can't get right! Even today, the well regarded and highly watched SNL comedy show is devout in airing a racist and stereotypical sketch if it involves a native theme, or that a professional ball team insist on using a term associated with the sale of Indian scalps. So why should we be shocked that science is not a real discipline, but a market for whom can invent the most powerful, lethal and discreet weapon that can kill as many humans at one time as possible with little mess. Then come talk to me about the Bering Straight. I don't believe mankind originated from Africa nor do I believe science has any answers. I believe science, the government and military are just as helpless and ignorant as the rest of us and it is possible that some back hills, pot smoking, whiskey drinking inbred may not only have more answers, but be alot more honest in sharing the facts. When the future looks back and wonders why America still had a Bureau of Indian Affairs into what we call the modern eras, they will clearly see its because in truth, Americans and the US government still did regard Native peoples as sub-human beings even into the year 2014.

BruceEdward's picture
Submitted by BruceEdward on
"There weren't even large ape-like creatures for Native Americans to evolve from separately in the Americas" The assumptions in this statement are manifold. This is the problem with this theory, and with most theories of this ilk, are the underlying assumptions. Most academics are so immersed in their assumptions and presumptions, it is extremely difficult to get them to even recognize their biases. Given I attended UC, Riverside, a bastion of Clovis First theories, I can say for a fact that much of the attraction for this theory is indeed racism. One of my professors, who had no problem working with natives around the world, had a serious problem working with Native Americans. In fact, he had been run off at least one reservation because he refused to obtain permission from Tribal authorities. My mentor, who had studied under this professor, quoted him as saying "the day I work with a Native Informant, is the day I retire from Archaeology". I always wondered why my UCR professors were so committed to this theory, refusing to even consider any other variants (another professor spent quite a bit of time trashing Monte Verde, and this was in '93). This article confirms much of what I experienced: it was mainly a political stance. European settlers have a "stronger" claim to the New World, if the ancestors of the Native Americans preceded Europeans by "only" ten thousand years. Trust me, if you scratch a die hard Clovis/Bering Straight theorist die hard deep enough, you find some surprising (or not so surprising) set of assumptions and biases that have nothing to do with Science, and everything to do with politics and prejudices.