New Face on Prehistory
Suggest Caucasoid Early Americans
By Boyce Rensberger
Post Staff Writer
unearthed in several western states and as far east as Minnesota are
challenging the traditional view that the earliest Americans all resembled
today's Asians. The skeletons' skulls hear features similar to those of
Europeans, suggesting that caucasian people were among the earliest humans
to migrate into the New World more
than 9,000 years ago.
Anthropologists have known of such bones for years, but did not fully
appreciate their significance until reappraising them over the last few
months. The new analyses were prompted by the discovery last summer of the
newest addition to the body of evidence-the unusually complete skeleton of
an "apparently Caucasoid" man who died about 9,300 years ago near
what is now Kennewick, Wash.
exciting time, and I think we're going to see some real changes in the story
about the peopling of North America," said Dennis Stanford, an authority on
early human history on this continent at the Smithsonian Institution's
National Museum of Natural History. "I think we're going to see the whole
complexion of North American prehistory change real fast."
Steele, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University, speculates that people of
both races migrated into North America in separate waves, possibly thousands
of years apart. Where they met, he suspects, they "made love, not war," and
thus both populations may be ancestral
to some or all of today's Native Americans.
most anthropologists thought that the earliest humans to inhabit the
Americas all resembled today's Asiatic peoples, popularly called Mongoloids.
Prehistoric Americans are thought to have migrated from Siberia into Alaska
and then spread southward, probably during an ice age when sea levels were
hundreds of feet lower than now, exposing a "land bridge.
however, many anthropologists believe that early colonization of the
Americas was a more complex process, involving not only Mongoloids but
Caucasoids as well, probably in separate migrations. Some Native American
peoples today resemble the people of Asia and some are more European. Much
of this mixture is the product of
intermarriage in recent centuries, but some may date back thousands of years.
reappraisal of prehistoric Americans also is providing an explanation for
the Ainu people of Japan. A distinctly European-looking population with
light skin, wavy hair and heavy beards, the Ainu were living on islands off
Asia thousands of years ago, when Mongoloid people from the mainland crossed
the water to found the modern Japanese
Ainu—historically a despised minority group, many of whom now live on
reservations—have long puzzled anthropologists because they lived so far
from any other known region of Caucasoid habitation and because people of
more typical Asiatic physical form filled a large intervening territory.
Anthropologists now suspect—but cannot prove—that the presence of
European-type people in Japan and in North America in prehistoric times
indicates that the race spread far from its presumed homeland in Western
Asia much earlier than had been thought.
emerging interpretations are based on a scientific technique called
craniofacial morphometric analysis. It involves detailed study of the shape
of the skull and face, using a sophisticated method called multivariate
analysis. In some cases, more than 60 different dimensions of a skull are
measured and compared with comparable dimensions considered
typical of specific racial groups. Anthropologists have established a
range of measurements considered characteristic of the majority of members
in each major group.
anthropologists agree that races, as most people use the term, are socially
defined groupings with no scientific definition. No physical traits are
exclusively the property of one race or another. Still, anthropologists
agree that certain combinations of measurements, chiefly of the face and
skull, can be used to determine whether individuals belong to one population
or another. This is true primarily for groups that have been separated
geographically for thousands of years.
people, for example, tend to have longer, more angular faces and bealder
noses, while Mongoloid people typically have rounder skulls and smaller
noses. Certain shapes of teeth also can figure in the analysis. So-called
shovel-shaped incisors, for example, are common among modern Asiatic peoples
and relatively rare among others.
combination of measurements, it is often possible to identify the race of
an individual when nothing is left but a skull, said Douglas Owsley, a
forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Such
analyses are routine in police work.
nationally recognized authority in this field, has examined some of the
evidence for early Caucasoid presence in the Americas and believes it is
fairly convincing. "There have been seven well-preserved skeletons that are
securely dated to 8,000 years or older," Owsley said. Two have been reburied
at the insistence of American Indian
groups who claimed the remains were of their ancestors. 'When you look at
the craniofacial morphology of the five that are still accessible, they are
certainly very different from today's Native Americans," Owsley said. "They
are a whole lot different from
contemporary Native Americans."
most intensively examined of the skeletons is that of a man who died
about 9,400 years ago and was laid to rest in Spirit Cave, Nev. His remains
were discovered in 1940 but their age was not determined until last year.
The man's head and shoulder were mummified, preserving much of the skin in
that area. He was wearing moccasins
and was wrapped in woven fabric.
recently examined the remains in great detail and, in his report to the
Nevada State Museum, where the skeleton is housed, said, "It does have a
'European' or 'archaic Caucasoid' look because morphometrically it is most
similar to the Ainu from Japan and a medieval period Norse population."
Owsley cautioned, this does not mean the man's ancestors were from Europe.
"I'm reluctant to say he's a white guy, but he's certainly very different
from modern Asians and Native Americans," Owsley said. One possibility, he
speculated, is that an ancient proto-caucasoid population lived in northern
Asia and offshoots from it moved east to Japan and across the land bridge to
clear that European-like people were previously more widespread in Asia than
is presently the case," said Richard L. Jantz, an anthropologist
specializing in prehistoric Americans at the University of Tennessee. "It is
possible that the distribution extended into Northeast Asia and that some of
them were positioned to enter America."
"To me it
seems pretty clear that Northeast Asia, up to about 9,000 years ago,
was inhabited by people who were unlike the people who live there today, and
that the early people were more 'Caucasoid' in appearance. At the present
time, I don't think the evidence is sufficient to argue that this similarity
results from descent from a common ancestor, but it is certainly possible,"
anthropologists reject the Caucasoid label for the prehistoric skeletons.
Donald K. Grayson of the University of Washington, for example, says that
using the word raises "a red flag, suggesting that whites were here earlier
and Indians were here later." That, he contends, implies that the ancient
peoples who reached the New World were
like today's Europeans or American whites.
In fact, as
some other anthropologists note, the "apparently Caucasoid" skeletons
may represent a physical type that was not ancestral to today's Europeans
but may have given rise to the Ainu and other groups, such as the
Polynesians, who do not resemble modern Asians but do have a some what
words, the scientists say it is possible that it is only a coincidence that
the ancient skeletons have features that resemble those of Europeans. The
long heads and angular faces may have arisen independently in a strictly
evidence to answer such questions lies in the skeletal remains that have
been found and in others presumably yet to emerge, both in North America and
two of the ancient skeletons from this country have been reburied, both at
the insistence of various American Indian ethnic groups who claimed that
because the remains were found in a region their people inhabited in recent
centuries, the bones must be of their ancestors.
these skeletons are so important scientifically, Jantz, Owsley,Stanford
and many other anthropologists are resisting pressure to rebury them.
Indian tribes, like nearly all ethnic groups worldwide, have migrated so
much in recent centuries that it is seldom possible to link any living
person with a specific geographic region for more than a few centuries, they
recent controversy involves the Kennewick, Wash., bones. "This
individual is a teacher for all ages," Owsley said. "There's just so much we
could learn from a detailed study of him."
One of the
most complete ancient skeletons found in this country, the bones were
immediately recognized as Caucasoid, leading those who first examined it to
think they were the remains of a European settler. A new method of
radiocarbon dating that consumes only tiny amounts of the sample
subsequently revealed the man lived 8,400 years ago.
Indian groups, particularly the Umatillas who live in that part of Washington,
the age simply confirmed their belief that the skeleton was one of their
ancestors. "We know that our people have been part of this land since the
beginning of time, a Umatilla leader wrote in a position paper.
request for reburial was made to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on whose
land the remains were found. The corps was about to comply when Owsley,
Stanford and other anthropologists filed suit last October in federal
District Court in Portland, Ore. They said the corps was violating the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The
scientists argued that the Umatillas had not properly established that the
skeleton was related to them and that, in any event, the law allows
scientific study before reburial.
hearing, the corps said it had made no decision to rebury the skeleton and
would not decide for some months. The judge ordered the corps to give
two-week notice to the scientists before reburial. The skeleton remains in a
vault pending further action.