The Earliest Americans

There’s an article on National Geographic today which has me befuddled in a myriad of ways.

Prehistoric Hair Suggests 1st Eskimos Came From Asia

My first problem comes with the title. The working hypothesis in North American Anthropology, based on archaeology, genetics, linguistics and skeletal remains is that the Inuit came to North America much later than Native Americans, and they are culturally distinct from Native Americans, and more closely associated to people in Asia then the rest of the Americas. And the first sentence of the article states:

“A clump of frozen human hair from northwest Greenland suggests that the first Eskimos in the New World did not descend from Native Americans as previously thought but came directly from Asia, a new study says. (my emphasis)”

I have NEVER been taught that the Inuit and Aleut descended from Native Americans, and I’m pretty surprised that National Geographic, of all organizations, would suggest such a thing. Apparently, a post-doc named Tom Gilbert in Denmark is the one who made that assertion to them. Maybe the Danes don’t know it, but it’s been known in the Americas for a long time.

My other problem with this article (I’ll get to the pros in a minute), is that they keep referring to the people as Eskimo. Eskimo has been considered an offensive term for decades, and the terms Inuit and Aleut are preferred by the Indigenous people we’re talking about. I assume this mistake is due to the fact that they are looking at remains from a period known as the Paleo-Eskimo by archaeologists. Archaeological terminology is an artifact of the time in which it was created. It’s a mess in itself.

However, archaeologists are quick to point out that

a) archaeological ‘cultures’ are not ‘real’ cultures per se. They are a suite of shared traits in material culture and spatial patterning which we can see in the archaeological record. We don’t actually know if the people who created them organized their societies in the way we interpret them, and we don’t know what they called themselves.


b) archaeological ‘cultures’ of the past do not directly correspond to contemporary cultures. In rare instances we can make links into prehistory using the direct historical approach, but we can’t make links back 4000 years this way, so we should not call people from 4000 years ago Eskimo, even if we DO use that term today (which we Don’t).

Sigh, I think I need a flow chart.

Now for the pros of the article. One interesting result is that the DNA of this man does not appear to be related to the contemporary Inuit people of Greenland, where he was found. This suggests multiple migrations into the region by different groups. Not that surprising, we think the physical remains of Paleo-Indian peoples suggest the same thing, but nice to have the data. Unfortunately, the researcher is also quoted as saying that this suggests new exciting ideas about when people first moved into the northernmost parts of North America. But the archaeological data for the Paleo-Eskimo period lines up pretty nicely with the dates they have for this guy, at about 4000 years ago. So I don’t know what’s so new and exciting about it.

On an unrelated note, I bet this wad of hair was found in receding glacial ice. Global warming teaches us exciting new things, but every story like this depresses me and makes me more terrified for the future generations.

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