Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 3: The Theory Becomes a Religious Crusade

Alex Ewen

In Part 2 of our exclusive series we looked at the mid-19th-century’s movement of science making a push to take over, and how the debate did not end, instead it only made it more contentious than ever.

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

In Europe, the new science of paleoanthropology had uncovered spectacular finds, but in America, it was paralyzed by infighting. In 1903, the new head of the physical anthropology department at the National Museum (now the Smithsonian), Aleš Hrdlička, and like-minded colleagues, were determined to end the disputations and promote professionalism and respectability.

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

By founding the first journal and first professional association of physical anthropology in the early 1900s, Hrdlička became the undisputed authority in that field. By insisting that the form of evidence suitable for answering the question of American origins only lay in physical anthropology, he cut out any other form of scientific evidence, for example linguistics, as most linguists were clearly at odds with his theory at that time. With Hrdlička at the head of the physical anthropology department at the National Museum, William Henry Holmes as curator of anthropology at the National Museum, and W.J. McGee at the helm of the Bureau of Ethnology, the top government positions in anthropology were now filled with ardent critics of the antiquity of humans in America.

Hrdlička and his colleagues then proceeded to debunk every known potentially ancient site in America and South America. His zeal was so great, as George W. Stocking wryly notes in The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, that “he succeeded in exiling early man from the hemisphere–so successfully that until 1930 it was almost heretical to claim an antiquity of greater than two or three thousand years.”

As the eminent archaeologist and director of the Bureau of Ethnology, Frank H.H. Roberts, who coined the term Paleoindian, wrote in 1940.

The upshot was that the question of early man in America became virtually taboo, and no anthropologist, or for that matter geologist or paleontologist, desirous of a successful career would tempt the fate of ostracism by intimating that he had discovered indications of a respectable antiquity for the Indian.

It has been argued that Hrdlička’s heavy handed tactics at least cleaned up the mess that was American paleoanthropology, and there certainly is much truth to that. Gone were the amateurs and dilettantes, gone were the hoaxsters and forgers, gone were the acrimonious pitched battles. Gone also was any other theory of American Indian origins but the Bering Strait Theory. As Roberts pointed out, the cleaning came with a heavy price.


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