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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)

Whose Race Is It Anyway?

HIDDEN denominational agendas are the least of the diffusionists' problems in their ongoing struggle for academic legitimacy. Attempting to understand an archaeological outlook that he simply cannot accept, the celebrated Maya scholar Arthur Demarest, of Vanderbilt University, proposes a rather utilitarian inspiration for mid-nineteenth-century diffusionism. "That," he says, "was the period of the frontier wars with the Native Americans -- a period, especially after Custer, when there was a lot of enmity and hatred toward Native Americans. So that fed into the idea that these earlier societies, not only the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca but even the ones up here -- the Moundbuilders, for example -- were somehow the product of some other white race that came in, was less savage, and was able to achieve these monuments and other things. I don't think contemporary diffusionists have any racist feelings, but that kind of sentiment did give diffusionism a boost back in the 1870s."

Demarest may not ascribe racist intentions to his diffusionist contemporaries, but there are some, particularly in official circles, who may. The 1996 discovery in Washington state of an ancient skeleton, designated Kennewick Man, soon sparked controversy among archaeologists, Native Americans, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, because the skeleton does not appear to be of Native American origin. As the writer Mark Lasswell observed in The Wall Street Journal, "Scientific evidence that American Indian ancestors may not have been the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere is a ticklish subject, not only for Indians but also, apparently, for the Clinton administration, exquisitely attuned, as always, to the nuances of multiculturalism."

Early studies of the remains led scientists to suspect that Kennewick Man arrived here some 9,300 years ago -- long after the Bering land bridge disappeared -- and bore certain "Caucasoid" features that were said to distinguish him from Native American peoples of Siberian heritage. Last fall federally appointed scientists released a report concluding that the skeleton's physiognomy is most closely linked to groups in southern and eastern Asia: the features originally described as Caucasoid are actually associated with a Japanese people known as the Ainu, they believe. If Kennewick Man is a member of the Ainu, that group's ancient maritime tradition might explain how he got here. Scientists say that more tests are needed to reach any definitive conclusions about Kennewick Man's origins; however, the government has not allowed any DNA testing of the skeleton to date, because Native Americans consider it intrusive and sacrilegious. If Kennewick Man was found on their land, area tribes insist, then he must be an ancestor, and his remains should not be disturbed. Moreover, because the religion and oral histories of these tribes hold that their people have lived in the Northwest "since the beginning of time,"they are resentful of any implication that they may have ancestors who migrated from another land -- whether from Siberia, Japan, or elsewhere. Archaeologists, eager to pursue the questions raised by Kennewick Man's discovery, have sued to perform DNA and other tests, and a U.S. magistrate has set a March deadline for federal officials to decide on the matter.

Meanwhile, in implicit acknowledgment that the race card had been played successfully, in April, 1998, the Army Corps of Engineers abruptly dumped 500 tons of rock fill over the site where Kennewick Man was discovered, beside the Columbia River. Although archaeologists often restore digging sites to their original condition after extensive studies have been completed, this action, by the corps's own admission, was meant to ensure "the protection of any additional skeletal material or cultural artifacts from further revelation."

The diffusionist cause enjoys no better political tolerance north of the border. In 1990, reacting to the prospect that some Manitoba schools might introduce discussions of pre-Columbian contact with North America into their curricula, Jack Steinbring, an anthropologist then at the University of Winnipeg, wrote to the Minister of Education at the time, Len Derkach, with a plea that he intervene. "The view that Europeans created North American Native rock art ... is dangerous," Steinbring stated.

Imagine Native youngsters being taught that the countless thousands of aboriginal rock paintings across North America were the result of the Norse, or Canaanites, or Phoenicians. The cause of this situation, and [the] implications for the strengthening of Native identity in a stressful period of acculturation are appropriately compared with apartheid or any other form of racial supremacy.
In a follow-up letter Steinbring declared, "Please understand that there is no debate on this epigraphy issue in Anthropology. Anthropology as a profession rejects it."

In any controversy about carvings on North American stones the name of Barry Fell inevitably surfaces. "In some rather twisted logic," Stephen Williams wrote in Fantastic Archaeology,

Fell sees a failure by anthropologists to recognize that many American Indian languages are heavily larded with wholesale borrowing from Mediterranean peoples, and says that this "does a grave injustice to the cultural tradition of the Amerindian peoples." .... I can only suppose Fell means therefore that the only true happiness for the Amerindians is to realize that they too are a part of the great heritage of Western civilization like ourselves. The Native Americans must want to ask, "Why have the anthropologists wanted to keep us apart?"
Why, indeed? asks Vine Deloria Jr., an outspoken Native American activist. Deloria is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota, a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His numerous books, which include Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), God Is Red (1973), and Red Earth, White Lies (1995), voice a thorough dissatisfaction with the standard histories of European and Native American relations since Columbus. In a 1992 paper in the academic journal American Antiquity, Deloria chastised the archaeological and anthropological establishment for embracing the monocultural implications of the Bering Strait hypothesis. "This migration from Siberia," he wrote, "is regarded as doctrine, but basically it is a fictional doctrine that places American Indians outside the realm of planetary human experiences."

A natural storyteller, Deloria takes obvious pleasure in drawing a listener into his tales with dramatic turns of phrase and deft modulations of his gravelly voice. He delights in irony, savors the unpredictable, and rewards surprise that is expressed at his many unexpected opinions with a mischievous "Aha!" You might think an Indian wouldn't feel such a way, he seems to be saying, but you never bothered to ask, did you?

Deloria bridles at what he sees as the reverse racism implicit in the establishment's dismissal of all things diffusionist. To him, the mainstream academic position that defends the Clovis-only hypothesis smacks of paternalism. He marvels at "the isolation of archaeologists today," and has written, "I have in the neighborhood of 80 books dealing in one way or another with Precolumbian expeditions to the Western Hemisphere." These books, he says, range from utter nonsense to some quite sophisticated reinterpretations of archaeological anomalies in light of new findings. But the archaeological establishment will have none of it, to Deloria's frustration. He laments, "There's no effort to ask the tribes what they remember of things that happened." In contrast to tribes in the area where Kennewick Man was found, he argues, "numerous tribes do say that strange people doing this or that came through our land, visited us, and so on. Or they remember that we came across the Atlantic as refugees from some struggle, then came down the St. Lawrence River, and so forth. There's a great reluctance among archaeologists and anthropologists to break centuries-old doctrine and to take a look at something new."

He continues, "As for the history of this hemisphere from, say, five thousand B.C. forward to our time, the mainstream scholars just don't want to deal with that at all. Let me give you an example. Years ago I spoke at an academic archaeological conference, and at the end of my speech I asked, 'Why don't you guys just drop the blinders and get into this diffusionist stuff?' My host, David Hurst Thomas, just about lost it and said, 'Do you know how long and hard we've fought to get members of this profession to admit that Indians could have done some of these things? And now you're saying it was Europeans!'"

Beyond Dirt Archaeology

IN the end, the issues dividing the diffusionists and the independent inventionists come down to an argument about what constitutes significant historical evidence. Arthur Demarest, of Vanderbilt, touches, perhaps unconsciously, on the crux of the matter when he proffers a twig of the olive branch. "Within orthodox academics," he says, "there are a lot of people who simply dismiss the argument out of hand on the ground that the mechanics of overseas diffusion themselves are too difficult. But there are others -- and I put myself in that group -- who don't doubt there's been contact. I don't think that the transport problems are such that they prevented people from moving between continents. What we doubt is the transformative impact of ephemeral contact. These visitors, whoever and wherever they were, simply didn't transform the societies they found here."

For the so-called dirt archaeologists, transformative influence is above all material, technological, and measurable. It is manifest, for example, in the distinctively fluted spearpoints left like so many business cards by the Clovis-culture immigrants who crossed the Bering land bridge. If successive waves of other visitors did reach the shores of North or South America, where is their material bequest? Where, for instance, are the wheels and keystone arches that flourished in the Old World for many centuries before Columbus but don't appear in the material record of the New World until after 1492?

The diffusionists' rebuttal is, well, diffuse; but it is thought-provoking just the same. On the one hand, the feisty George Carter, an emeritus professor of geography at Texas A&M University, points to the case of Hernando de Soto, who traipsed through the New World from 1539 to 1542. De Soto and his army came in contact with hundreds if not thousands of Native Americans, traded goods, and introduced non-native livestock -- and yet, as Carter points out in the book Across Before Columbus? Evidence for Transoceanic Contact With the Americas Prior to 1492 (1998), "of that passage virtually no trace can be found."

On the other hand, Stephen Jett, a geographer at the University of California at Davis, says that such Old World inventions as the arch and the wheel are not the sine qua non of cultural exchange, as the establishment would have us believe. In an essay in Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts (1971), Jett repeated the caution of Douglas Fraser, an art historian at Columbia University:

If we judge West African culture by the absence of wheeled vehicles, the plow, the true arch, draft animals and milking, then the well-documented Islamic penetration of the western Sudan [which in earlier times reached from present-day Senegal to Chad] cannot have taken place. For these traits are all well known in Moslem North Africa .... the ancient Greeks also rejected [the true arch] though it was known earlier in Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt.
For David Kelley, the wheel-and-arch conundrum is doubly perplexing. In his own contribution to Man Across the Sea he wondered "why neither the true arch nor the wheel [was] to be found in Egypt for more than a thousand years after Mesopotamian influences transformed Egypt from a Neolithic farming stage to a semiurban, literate society, although [those inventions] already had a long history in Mesopotamia." Moreover, the ancient riddle has significant modern ramifications. "In the light of such evidence," Kelley continued, "it is surprising to find scholars ... arguing that the absence of the true arch and the wheel in the New World proved that there had been no contacts between New World and Old World."

In short, the diffusionists and their sympathizers contend, it is the nature of acceptable evidence that perpetuates the debate. "The problem," Kelley says, "is in the fact that there are influences, but they don't show up in 'dirt archaeology.' Basically, they show up in ideological materials: mythology, astronomy, calendrics. These are precisely the areas which are hardest to deal with archaeologically. And so they don't get much attention from traditional archaeologists."

Deloria echoes Kelley's concern. "There's the Stephen Jay Gould attitude out there," he says, "that believes science can do whatever it wants unless it comforts religion -- because religion is considered a mere superstition. But if you look at it, most things that they're calling religious are not really religious. They're oral traditions; they're ancient memory." If mainstream archaeologists and anthropologists are unwilling or unable to consider evidence of this type, Deloria suggests, perhaps they're not the right ones for the job.

That is also the opinion of Jon Polansky, an editor of the Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, a journal co-founded by Barry Fell and devoted to the study of transoceanic contact. Polansky concedes that orthodox archaeologists are certainly competent to perform excavations and to document the physical details of any artifacts they may find. He believes, however, that they are neither suitably trained nor philosophically inclined to test new hypotheses when it comes to nontraditional forms of evidence. "They're just not concerned with methods they don't use," he argues. As a result, he says, mainstream archaeology is missing -- perhaps even obscuring -- many opportunities for discovering transoceanic contact by limiting the academic specialties deemed fit to evaluate the evidence.

Polansky is an associate professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center and the director of the laboratory that first isolated and cloned the gene responsible for glaucoma; he was a student of Barry Fell's at Harvard in the 1960s. His is an energetic, insistent, and even impatient personality; just the same, he frequently bites his lip, as if to avoid disclosing some secret or other that one has yet to earn. His quandary is this: he has an editorial responsibility to propagate the latest research about transoceanic contacts, and yet he harbors, understandably enough, a basic mistrust about how new findings will be received. Traditional academics are, he believes, less interested in new ideas than in safeguarding positions of influence and authority. In a 1998 essay in the Journal of the West, Polansky and his co-authors, Donal Buchanan and Norman Totten, wrote,

Part of the scientific approach ... is the pioneering will to follow internally consistent data to [their] logical conclusions without concern for whether or not the conclusions overturn existing idea structures. We do not favor the bias often imposed on new information, requiring "extraordinary proof" for "extraordinary ideas." Instead, we propose a level playing field in which data ... are explored in an honest ... application of scientific method ... without bias as to whether [hypotheses] agree with prevailing academic thought.
The extraordinary ideas Polansky proposes include the possibility not only of ancient contact between the hemispheres across both great oceans but also of reciprocal transfers of information and lore. It's one thing to discover evidence of travelers to the Western Hemisphere, he says. But what influences and traditions might the Native Americans have diffused among these visitors in return?

Diffusionists like Polansky and Deloria are convinced that this kind of information will be revealed only when qualified experts outside archaeology and anthropology undertake to examine the available evidence. Linguists, classicists, Asianists, specialists in comparative religion, epigraphers, archaeo-astronomers, navigation historians, ethno-botanists, and ethno-geneticists -- these are the sorts of scholars who, Polansky believes, must take responsibility for evaluating the evidence that traditional academics find either meaningless or troubling.

There is no denying, of course, that the official history of the Western Hemisphere did not begin until Europeans wrote their first documents about the New World, at the close of the fifteenth century. Before then was an undoubtedly rich but largely unremembered period of habitation by the descendants of unlettered Ice Age mammoth-stalkers -- people who themselves had no written language. The Western Hemisphere is unique in this respect. What we know of the hundreds of generations who lived here before Columbus staked his claim is frozen in the archaeological record. It is for the most part a mute record, consisting overwhelmingly of pottery shards, pointed flints, traces of dwellings, monuments, rock drawings -- in short, of virtually every product of human imagination except alphabetic writing. How fitting, then, that the diffusionists' curious lettered stones and tablets would break the silence, inciting noisy protest from the curators of America's past even as they suggest that ancient Americans may have enjoyed the occasional conversation with visitors from afar.

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)


Marc K. Stengel is a writer and a television producer in Nashville, Tennessee. Stengel is at work on a historical novel and a documentary film, both touching on aspects of pre-Columbian transoceanic migration.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; The Diffusionists Have Landed - 00.01 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 1; page 35-48.