Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 2: Racism, Eugenics and When Natives Came to America

Alex Ewen

Paleoanthropology needed a leader, someone who could end the chaos and put it on the path to respectability. It found it in a most unlikely person, a Czech-born anthropologist by the name of Aleš Hrdlička. His impact on American paleoanthropology in the coming century would be difficult to overstate.

The Rise of an Orthodoxy

Although only 34 years old in 1903, Hrdlička was chosen to head the new physical anthropology department at the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History) in Washington D.C. Physical anthropology, the biological study of humans, was at that time largely concerned with “racial classification,” often through the study of human skulls, and Hrdlička was by then one of its leading experts. Over the previous four years, Hrdlička had toured the Americas examining people and collecting skulls for the American Museum of Natural History and his skills had brought him to the attention of the curator of anthropology at the National Museum, William Henry Holmes.

Holmes, one of the most prominent critics of the Calaveras skull, was a veteran in the war among paleoanthropologists and the leading debunker of ancient archaeological finds. In Hrdlička, Holmes found a person who was an even more strident advocate of the modernity of American Indians and an unswerving devotee of the Bering Strait Theory, believing that Indians had originated in Central Europe and then reached the Americas no earlier than 3,000 BC. As the anthropologist Adolph H. Schultz wrote in 1944 in his memorial to Hrdlička,

In regard to his own conclusions, Hrdlička seems to have been rarely plagued by doubts … Thus, once having become convinced that man’s arrival in America was of comparatively recent date, he steadfastly clung to and passionately fought for this conclusion to the end of his life, even in view of evidence demanding a reconsideration of the problem of the antiquity of man in the New World.

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HontasF's picture
Submitted by HontasF on
It is interesting but not surprising that "western" "scientist" of the past would use their religious view to inform their hypotheses. Back then anthropology was more like an art. DNA, upon which the modern bering strait theory is built does not lie about it's most controversial point among us. That is weather American Indians came from anyplace else, or have "always" been here...since the big bang or something.

Teikweidi's picture
Submitted by Teikweidi on
I want it to be so also, but until "evidence based" proof validates a date or timeframe for American Indian origins...I will refrain from criticism of any method that attempts to place our beginnings. Our other choice, is to develop capacity in our own people, educationally, to find the answers.