ARCHAEOLOGISTS CHANGE COURSE: Historians Rethink Bering Strait Migration
By Larry Stroud, March 19, 2010
Associate Editor, Batesville Daily Guard
CHEROKEE VILLAGE — In a stunning reversal of a pattern of thought ingrained in archaeologists since the 19th century, the scientific community now concedes that all ancestors of American Indians did not arrive by migrating across the former Bering Strait land bridge, Dr. George M. Lankford told members of the Spring River Gem & Mineral Club earlier this month.
“If you take a course in the Prehistory of America now, you will be taught that they came from many directions and many sources,” Lankford said. “It is pretty clear that one group of people came across the Bering Strait land bridge. It’s also pretty clear that some came by boat — some came across the Atlantic and some came across the Pacific.”
Those who arrived from across the Pacific apparently included a Buddhist monk who landed in California sometime in the distant past, and researchers are now looking for clues — cultural shifts — in indigenous populations there that reflect the monk’s culture, Lankford said.
The aboutface in thinking is known throughout the scientific community, having been reported in archaeologists’ journals and reflected in changes in major universities’ American prehistory classes, but remains unknown or virtually unknown to the public, he said.
American prehistory is defined as the period before the arrival of Europeans who took notes on what they found when they reached the continent, he said.
Lankford, professor emeritus at Lyon College who served as endowed professor and chair of social sciences, titled his talk, “Catching Up With the Old: How Archaeologists Keep Changing the Story.”
He holds a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University and is a nationally recognized scholar in folklore, anthropology, religious studies and ethnohistory, as well as the author of numerous books and about 100 published articles.
Lankford is familiar with archaeological “digs” and procedures, having assisted with annual Arkansas Archeological Society digs for many years. He also arranged and participated in several digs at pioneer sites in old town Batesville for his students during his 30 years in teaching, obtaining a professional archaeologist to be in charge of each of those digs.
Among contributing factors to the change of thought was finding that the Watson Brake mound complex near Monroe, La., is much older than previously thought.
The original thinking about Native American mounds was that the complex cultures required to produce mound building could not have occurred before middle to late Woodland Period, dated roughly from 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. But, Lankford said, dating techniques used by archaeologists who were digging at Watson Brake in the 1990s were turning up almost unbelievably early dates on items from the mounds — items that obviously were the result of human activity.
At first, they were throwing out the dates, considering them wrong, Lankford said.
“They were coming up with carbon dates of 3000 B.C. and earlier for the mounds,” he said.
“People were saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” said Lankford.
Then, Lankford said, southeastern archaeologists attending a conference began asking one another: “What do you do when you find an anomaly (an abnormality)?”
Their answers are reported in an edition of Southeastern Archeologists, the group’s official publication.
“I throw it out,” one said. Turning to another, he asked, “What do you do when you find an anomaly?”
“Throw it out,” that one answered, and so on around the room, Lankford said.
The anomaly was the carbon dating results.
Lankford said the archaeologists then realized that if everyone was coming up with the same anomaly, they had to consider this: “Why can’t it be true? We’ve checked and double checked our data and it is all correct.”
“They said, ‘Wait. We’re all getting these same dates.’”
The Watson Brake mound complex is now assigned a construction date of between 4000 B.C. to 2500 B.C. — meaning natives were constructing mounds more than 1,000 years before the famous pyramids in Egypt were built.
Sites of other archaeological digs in the Americas, while remaining controversial, reflect even much earlier dates. The Monte Verde site in Chile reflects carbon-dating results of 33,000 years ago and the Topper site in South Carolina is yielding artifacts that are believed by some archaeologists to indicate human presence there as far back as 50,000 years.
When archaeologists have such a breakthrough, it doesn’t even make a splash in the news media, but a major shift in understanding has occurred, Lankford said, adding, “It’s like a dam bursts” but which gets no attention in the press.
“That means the revolution has come and gone,” he said.
Exciting new opportunities are ahead for archaeologists and anthropologists, Lankford said.
“There are all sorts of ancient sites across North America and South America — large sites — many of which have never been dug at all. Our prehistory of North America is much more complex and complicated than previously thought.”
Any of those sites could produce monumental discoveries, Lankford feels.
Monks Mound at Cahokia (near Collinsville, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St.. Louis) is so large it could contain three of the Great Pyramids in it,” Lankford said. “Everything we understand could be overturned by the next shovelful of dirt at Cahokia.”
Monks Mound covers 14 acres at its base and is almost 100 feet tall.
The Cahokia complex contained 120 manmade earthen mounds, 80 of which survive.
Lankford said he predicts that experts in DNA analysis will now play an important role in determining where ancestors of various indigenous cultures in America originated.
(image map from Wikipedia)