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A study of skulls excavated from the tip of
Baja California in Mexico suggests that the first Americans may not have been
the ancestors of today's Amerindians, but another people who came from Southeast
Asia and the southern Pacific area.
The question of who colonized the Americas, and
when, has long been hotly debated. Traditionally, Native Americans are believed
to have descended from northeast Asia, arriving over a land bridge between
Siberia and Alaska some 12,000 years ago and then migrating across North and
A study of skulls excavated in Baja California,
Mexico, suggests that the first Americans may have come from Southeast Asia and
the southern Pacific area. Photograph
courtesy Rolando González-José
But recent research, including the Baja
California study, indicates that the initial settlement of the continent was
instead driven by Southeast Asians who occupied Australia 60,000 years ago and
then expanded into the Americas about 13,500 years ago, prior to Mongoloid
people arriving from northeast Asia.
The skulls from Baja California, which may date
back only a few hundred years, have slender-looking faces that are different
from the broad-cheeked craniums of modern Amerindians, the descendants of the
"Our results change the traditional idea that
all modern Amerindians present morphological affinities with East Asians as a
result of a single migration," said Rolando González-José of the University of
Barcelona, Spain, who led the study. "The settlement of the New World is better
explained by considering a continuous influx of people from Asia."
The new study is reported in this week's issue
of the science journal Nature, and could further fuel the controversy
surrounding the origins of the first Americans, which is a controversial issue
for American Indians in particular.
Conventional wisdom says that Native Americans
descended from prehistoric hunters who walked from northeast Asia across a land
bridge, formed at the end of the Ice Age, to Alaska some 12,000 years ago.
American Indians resemble the people of Mongolia, China and Siberia.
In the 1930s, archeologists found stone spear
points among the bones of mammoths near Clovis, New Mexico. Radio carbon dating
in the 1950s showed that the oldest site was 11,400 years old. The sites were
assumed, for years, to be the first evidence of human occupation in the
But more recent discoveries challenge the
Clovis story. In 1996, archeologists in southern Chile found weapons and tools
dating back 12,500 years. In Brazil, they found some of the oldest human remains
in the Americas, among them a skeleton—named Luzia—that is more than 11,000
Luzia did not look like American Indians.
Instead, her facial features matched most closely with the native Aborigines in
Australia. These people date back to about 60,000 years and were themselves
descended from the first humans who probably originated in Africa.
The researchers believe Luzia was part of a
people, referred to as "Paleoamericans," who migrated into the Americas—possibly
even by boat—long before the Mongoloid people. These Paleoamericans may later
have been wiped out by or interbred with Mongoloids invading from the north.
The late skulls found in Baja California are
similar to Luzia and the Paleoamerican skulls found in South America. Their
craniums are characterized by long and narrow vaults, with faces short and low
in relation to the neurocranium.
"Skeletal studies demonstrate that skeletal
remains do not fit the Mongoloid set of traits that is determinant of the modern
Amerindian morphology," said González-José. "Our results demonstrate that not
only are some early remains not Mongoloid, but also some modern groups, like
those of Baja California."
The study suggests that Baja California was one
of many isolated pockets throughout the Americas were Paleoamerican traits
survived. The Paleoamericans might have split at one point, with one group going
down to Baja California. This group may not have come in contact with
Paleoindians for millennia.
Some experts, however, find it difficult to
believe that such a population could have evolved in isolation.
"I don't doubt there's skeletal diversity and
that it's probably coming out of old world Asia," said Tom Dillehay, an
archeologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who commented on the
study in a separate article for Nature. "But I am very skeptical of a
population, particularly close to a coastline, that could have been isolated for
more than 10,000 years."
The identity of the first Americans is an
emotive issue for American Indians, who believe their ancestors were the first
to inhabit the Americas.
Controversy erupted after skeletal remains were
found in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. This skeleton, estimated to be 9,000
years old, had a long cranium and narrow face—features typical of people from
Europe, the Near East or India—rather than the wide cheekbones and rounder skull
of an American Indian.
A coalition of Indian tribes, however, said
that if Kennewick Man was 9,000 years old, he must be their ancestor, no matter
what he looked like. Invoking a U.S. federal law that provides for the return of
Native American remains to their living descendants, the tribes demanded a halt
to all scientific study and the immediate return of the skeleton for burial in a
The matter is still stuck in the courts.
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