The Ancient Circumpolar World

"Richland" or "Kennewick" Man, the name being used for the 9,300 year old skeleton that was found near the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington represents more than a political crisis about native reburial rights. The surprising, preliminary indication is that the skeleton may have been caucasian, or more accurately, some prototypical racial example that differs from the region's modern native population. The question of whether any scientific analysis will ever be done remains up in the air but the amount of publicity that the story is receiving reflects a wide popular interest in the unexplained mysteries of ancient Native America. The discovery is calling new attention to scientific investigations that may eventually change our ideas about the arrival of humans in the New World.

The northern circumpolar region is one of the areas where new information is emerging. New questions are being asked about human history in the Far North because global environmental models of the last Ice Age are changing. Since the end of the Cold War, new scientific alliances with Russian investigators and native communities are opening one of the last frontiers of northern, archaeological research. For the first time in almost a hundred years, scientists can work together and exchange information around the entire circumpolar world. The Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center has pioneered the collaborative efforts that encourage new approaches to difficult questions about the past.

Join us as we investigate how scientists are exploring these new ideas about the northern world and the peoples who have occupied it from the last Ice Age to the present. New tools like genetic research and environmental modeling along with recent archaeological discoveries in the ground, are beginning to indicate that previous theories about the peopling of the New World may have to be revised. No longer can the simple idea of people walking across the Bering Land Bridge be considered as the only source for the rich diversity that scientists are finding in Native American prehistory.

Exploring the Issues of Conflict Between Native America and Science

Many traditional native Americans do not subscribe to the widely accepted scientific notions of North American prehistory. When this is added to a long history of crushed civil rights based on old racial prejudices that were often supported by 19th century "Science," it is understandable how new discoveries that don't necessarily fit into anyone's model will cause tensions. But attitudes are evolving. Scientists are enthusiastically facing a new stage of research and reinterpretation that will probably hold surprises for everyone. Science can be the vanguard of the popular will, seeking answers to our oldest questions of where we come from and how all humans are related.

Recently, the earth has yielded a number of purely accidental discoveries - human ancestors in extraordinary states of physical preservation. A 5,000 year old man found frozen in the Alps, a young girl from the thousand year old Thule culture of northern Alaska, a young Inca woman sacrificed high in the Andes -- ancestors who's physical remains were saved by Nature. The over-culture's reaction to these discoveries can range from circus-like effects introducing questionable media coverage to careful research guided by the spiritual values of local native communities. The wonderful coincidence is that these individuals have been revealed at a particular moment in history when science is reaching a new plateau in the study of human genetics. Recently developed technologies are offering much deeper insights into human evolution. What can the DNA tell us? Do these ancestors "belong" to all humans?

Some of the individuals who have been discovered are part of a very special subset of the formal burial category, the mummy. Mummies are individuals who are representatives of a culture where the group decided to use their highest technology to attempt to preserve that individual for future generations. A mummy in Nevada has recently been dated to around 9,000 years ago indicating that this physical and spiritual expression has long been a part of the Native American religious perspective. These are deliberate attempts to preserve the "secrets" of a culture's past and convey them to the living. Are the "secrets" hidden in the bones and DNA of ancient individuals whom the earth itself has preserved any less valuable?

The North Pacific Rim

Genetic research on the 'Richland' or 'Kennewick' Man will be of major interest to audiences worldwide. If he is caucasian, or more accurately, some ancestral prototype, what other world populations is he related to? Is he related to the mysterious Ainu people, an isolated caucasian group who live in northern Japan? For years, the Arctic Studies Center has been collaborating with scientists and native groups to develop a new understanding of the cultures along the North Pacific Rim. Recently, their work with Japanese scientists and Ainu scholars (link to Ainu page) has begun to introduce this little known group to the public. Their work is expanding the scope of the Pacific Rim concept and increasing our awareness about cultural connections over this vast arc now understood as the "Crossroad of Continents." As we explore further, we'll look at new ideas about the Beringian crossing from Siberia to the New World based on recent discoveries in environmental and genetic research.

For example, new ideas about glacial ice shelves across the North Pacific Rim are expanding previous migration theories. While the land bridge between Asia and North America was an extremely harsh arctic desert, the edges of the ice shelves that extended out over the ocean were among the world's most productive environmental regions supporting multiple layers of ocean life and sea mammals -- ideal hunting areas for humans. Along with the new environmental models have come recent discoveries indicating that people along the North Pacific Rim have been adapted to life on the ocean for at least 15,000 years. Equipped with harpoons and travelling along the glacial pack ice, these sea hunters represent a new model of human adaptation to the northern environment from around 8,000 years ago. These new ideas about population movement along the ocean's edge are being added to the earlier theories of migration to challenge the once simple notion of limited crossings on foot over the Bering land bridge.

Echoing the new vision of a true "Crossroads", the most recent genetic work with native Siberian and North American groups indicates that movements have occurred in both directions across the Pacific Rim. (link to ASC/NSF genetic research page) As our understanding of prehistoric migration expands, the extraordinarily complex evidence of cultural connection that was first studied almost a hundred years ago by Franz Boas during the original Russian/American Jessup expedition, will fit into a larger context. In the next year, scientists from around the world will begin a new initiative concerning the North Pacific that will fittingly be called, "Jessup II".

The North Atlantic Rim

Or is the Kennewick skeleton related to the oldest cultures of Western Europe? On the other side of the world, The North Atlantic Bio-Cultural Organization was recently formed by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic to begin looking at cultures that shared similar adaptations to the northern sea in both the Old and New Worlds. For the first time, the ocean environment is being looked at as a dominant force in shaping these cultures and the northern Atlantic waters form a unified context from which they can be studied. In a sense, this has created the concept of a "North Atlantic Rim" that balances with our changing vision in the North Pacific. With scientific thought moving in this direction, it was only a matter of time before The Center for the Study of the First Americans would start to launch genetic studies of 7-8,000 year old ceremonial burials on both sides of the North Atlantic. Like most archaeological revolutions, this one is evolving slowly as many small but significant discoveries allow us to gradually build new models for human activity in the past.

Perhaps more than any other factor, it is new thinking about human adaptation during the last Ice Age that is changing the questions that are being asking about the arrival of people in the New World. The prehistory of Arctic and Sub-Arctic cultures is still one of the frontiers of scientific investigation. Along with a changing picture of the ancient physical world, a new awareness of the early development of sea travel in both the Pacific and the Atlantic is altering our vision of ancient northern peoples.

The Maritime Revolution

In it's own time, many thousands of years ago, the first human adaptation to life on the ocean was as powerful an evolutionary event as today's adaptation to life in outer space. Just as we are slowly but surely adapting to space, our ancestors discovered their ability to free themselves from terra firma and live on the sea; to float out and look back at their landscapes slipping away into ocean mists. Perhaps they had feelings like modern astronauts who break their own bonds with the earth and look back toward their home through the mists of an atmospheric shroud. We're only at the beginning of the space revolution but we can already see its transforming effect on humanity. We can imagine that ancient seafarers also experienced a correspondingly radical change in their view of the world. Just as our "sense" of the earth was forever altered by the famous image of the floating, 'blue marble', one of the results of early maritime adaptation may have been that sea peoples gradually developed a new relationship or "sense" of the landscapes from which they had recently been liberated.

It is particularly difficult to trace this evolutionary step because it occurred among people who left their remains at the edge of one of the world's most destructive natural forces. Yet the edges of rivers and oceans were also the planet's most consistently sustaining environments for both animal and human life. People probably evolved maritime technologies and corresponding life styles at many independent locations around the world. Guessing where it may have happened first seems impossible. In the Northern Atlantic, the remains of ancient sea peoples date from the glacial epoch. Humans came into these regions as the last ice age was melting away perhaps 10 to 15 thousand years ago. Scientists are just beginning to understand this early northern migration along with the maritime developments that made it possible.

Archeology has traditionally been a land based and a land biased discipline because it was born out of classical geology and baptized in the new idea of historical stratigraphy. It was confirmed after decades of work which emphasized agrarian civilizations found chronologically layered under the arid deserts of the Middle East -- the biblical source of humanity. The beautifully preserved levels progressing upward from the deepest and most primitive stages became the solid steps of an evolutionary model for the development of civilization.

Because the "conquest" of the sea happened such a long time ago and so little evidence remains at the ocean's abrasive edge, archeologists have been hesitant to see this advance as responsible for a major step in the development of civilization. Compare this to the emphasis we place on the impact of farming. Archeology, with its natural bias toward whatever can be discovered in the ground, has made the agricultural model the fundamental civilizing influence because its effects are readily discernible. But scientists are beginning to see the earlier, maritime revolution in a new light.

Researchers began to piece together the evidence for the development of early maritime societies along the northern and western coasts of Europe where the use of radio carbon dating indicated that these cultures flourished long before the advent of farming. But the surprising recent discovery of ancient sea peoples along the Northeastern coasts of the New World has expanded this study into an archeology of the North Atlantic. It has also opened a significant new chapter in Native American prehistory. Once called the "Red Paint People of Maine" but now known as the Maritime Archaic, scientists never expected to find an Indian group that was adapted to life on the North Atlantic over 7,000 years ago. We now have a strange new image to study -- a mirrored image that challenges what we know about the history of human development on both sides of the ocean.

The identification of the Maritime Archaic and the discovery of their settlements in northern Labrador were among the first research efforts accomplished by the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center. Let's follow the story of this investigation to see how our long accepted ideas about the prehistory of Native America are still capable of being radically changed.