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Man in America

It was necessary to form some idea, if only in outline, of the magnitude and extent of the great geological changes of which we have just spoken, in order to judge properly the question of the antiquity and origin of man in America.

When the Europeans came to this continent at the end of the fifteenth century they found it already inhabited by races of men very different from themselves. These people, whom they took to calling 'Indians,' were spread out, though very thinly, from one end of the continent to the other. Who were these nations, and how was their presence to be accounted for?

To the first discoverers of America, or rather to the discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Columbus and his successors), the origin of the Indians presented no difficulty. To them America was supposed to be simply an outlying part of Eastern Asia, which had been known by repute and by tradition for centuries past. Finding, therefore, the tropical islands of the Caribbean sea with a climate and plants and animals such as they imagined those of Asia and the Indian ocean to be, and inhabited by men of dusky color and strange speech, they naturally thought the place to be part of Asia, or the Indies. The name 'Indians,' given to the aborigines of North America, records for us this historical misunderstanding.

But a new view became necessary after Balboa had crossed the isthmus of Panama and looked out upon the endless waters of the Pacific, and after Magellan and his Spanish comrades had sailed round the foot of the continent, and then pressed on across the Pacific to the real Indies. It was now clear that America was a different region from Asia. Even then the old error died hard. Long after the Europeans realized that, at the south, America and Asia were separated by a great sea, they imagined that these continents were joined together at the north. The European ideas of distance and of the form of the globe were still confused and inexact. A party of early explorers in Virginia carried a letter of introduction with them from the King of England to the Khan of Tartary: they expected to find him at the head waters of the Chickahominy. Jacques Cartier, nearly half a century after Columbus, was expecting that the Gulf of St Lawrence would open out into a passage leading to China. But after the discovery of the North Pacific ocean and Bering Strait the idea that America was part of Asia, that the natives were 'Indians' in the old sense, was seen to be absurd. It was clear that America was, in a large sense, an island, an island cut off from every other continent. It then became necessary to find some explanation for the seemingly isolated position of a portion of mankind separated from their fellows by boundless oceans.

The earlier theories were certainly naive enough. Since no known human agency could have transported the Indians across the Atlantic or the Pacific, their presence in America was accounted for by certain of the old writers as a particular work of the devil. Thus Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan clergyman of early New England, maintained in all seriousness that the devil had inveigled the Indians to America to get them 'beyond the tinkle of the gospel bells.' Others thought that they were a washed-up remnant of the great flood. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, wrote: 'From Adam and Noah that they spring, it is granted on all hands.' Even more fantastic views were advanced. As late as in 1828 a London clergyman wrote a book which he called 'A View of the American Indians,' which was intended to 'show them to be the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel.'

Even when such ideas as these were set aside, historians endeavored to find evidence, or at least probability, of a migration of the Indians from the known continents across one or the other of the oceans. It must be admitted that, even if we supposed the form and extent of the continents to have been always the same as they are now, such a migration would have been entirely possible. It is quite likely that under the influence of exceptional weather--winds blowing week after week from the same point of the compass--even a primitive craft of prehistoric times might have been driven across the Atlantic or the Pacific, and might have landed its occupants still alive and well on the shores of America. To prove this we need only remember that history records many such voyages. It has often happened that Japanese junks have been blown clear across the Pacific. In 1833 a ship of this sort was driven in a great storm from Japan to the shores of the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. In the same way a fishing smack from Formosa, which lies off the east coast of China, was once carried in safety across the ocean to the Sandwich Islands. Similar long voyages have been made by the natives of the South Seas against their will, under the influence of strong and continuous winds, and in craft no better than their open canoes. Captain Beechey of the Royal Navy relates that in one of his voyages in the Pacific he picked up a canoe filled with natives from Tahiti who had been driven by a gale of westerly wind six hundred miles from their own island. It has happened, too, from time to time, since the discovery of America, that ships have been forcibly carried all the way across the Atlantic. A glance at the map of the world shows us that the eastern coast of Brazil juts out into the South Atlantic so far that it is only fifteen hundred miles distant from the similar projection of Africa towards the west. The direction of the trade winds in the South Atlantic is such that it has often been the practice of sailing vessels bound from England to South Africa to run clear across the ocean on a long stretch till within sight of the coast of Brazil before turning towards the Cape of Good Hope. All, however, that we can deduce from accidental voyages, like that of the Spaniard, Alvarez de Cabral, across the ocean is that even if there had been no other way for mankind to reach America they could have landed there by ship from the Old World. In such a case, of course, the coming of man to the American continent would have been an extremely recent event in the long history of the world. It could not have occurred until mankind had progressed far enough to make vessels, or at least boats of a simple kind.

But there is evidence that man had appeared on the earth long before the shaping of the continents had taken place. Both in Europe and America the buried traces of primitive man are vast in antiquity, and carry us much further back in time than the final changes of earth and ocean which made the continents as they are; and, when we remember this, it is easy to see how mankind could have passed from Asia or Europe to America. The connection of the land surface of the globe was different in early times from what it is to-day. Even still, Siberia and Alaska are separated only by the narrow Bering Strait. From the shore of Asia the continent of North America is plainly visible; the islands which lie in and below the strait still look like stepping-stones from continent to continent. And, apart from this, it may well have been that farther south, where now is the Pacific ocean, there was formerly direct land connection between Southern Asia and South America. The continuous chain of islands that runs from the New Hebrides across the South Pacific to within two thousand four hundred miles of the coast of Chile is perhaps the remains of a sunken continent. In the most easterly of these, Easter Island, have been found ruined temples and remains of great earthworks on a scale so vast that to believe them the work of a small community of islanders is difficult. The fact that they bear some resemblance to the buildings and works of the ancient inhabitants of Chile and Peru has suggested that perhaps South America was once merely a part of a great Pacific continent. Or again, turning to the other side of the continent, it may be argued with some show of evidence that America and Africa were once connected by land, and that a sunken continent is to be traced between Brazil and the Guinea coast.

Nevertheless, it appears to be impossible to say whether or not an early branch of the human race ever 'migrated' to America. Conceivably the race may have originated there. Some authorities suppose that the evolution of mankind occurred at the same time and in the same fashion in two or more distinct quarters of the globe. Others again think that mankind evolved and spread over the surface of the world just as did the various kinds of plants and animals. Of course, the higher endowment of men enabled them to move with greater ease from place to place than could beings of lesser faculties. Most writers of to-day, however, consider this unlikely, and think it more probable that man originated first in some one region, and spread from it throughout the earth. But where this region was, they cannot tell. We always think of the races of Europe as having come westward from some original home in Asia. This is, of course, perfectly true, since nearly all the peoples of Europe can be traced by descent from the original stock of the Aryan family, which certainly made such a migration. But we know also that races of men were dwelling in Europe ages before the Aryan migration. What particular part of the globe was the first home of mankind is a question on which we can only speculate.

Of one thing we may be certain. If there was a migration, there must have been long ages of separation between mankind in America and mankind in the Old World; otherwise we should still find some trace of kinship in language which would join the natives of America to the great racial families of Europe, Asia, and Africa. But not the slightest vestige of such kinship has yet been found. Everybody knows in a general way how the prehistoric relationships among the peoples of Europe and Asia are still to be seen in the languages of to-day. The French and Italian languages are so alike that, if we did not know it already, we could easily guess for them a common origin. We speak of these languages, along with others, as Romance languages, to show that they are derived from Latin, in contrast with the closely related tongues of the English, Dutch, and German peoples, which came from another common stock, the Teutonic. But even the Teutonic and the Romance languages are not entirely different. The similarity in both groups of old root words, like the numbers from one to ten, point again to a common origin still more remote. In this way we may trace a whole family of languages, and with it a kinship of descent, from Hindustan to Ireland. Similarly, another great group of tongues--Arabic, Hebrew, etc.--shows a branch of the human family spread out from Palestine and Egypt to Morocco.

Now when we come to inquire into the languages of the American Indians for evidence of their relationship to other peoples we are struck with this fact: we cannot connect the languages of America with those of any other part of the world. This is a very notable circumstance. The languages of Europe and Asia are, as it were, dovetailed together, and run far and wide into Africa. From Asia eastward, through the Malay tongues, a connection may be traced even with the speech of the Maori of New Zealand, and with that of the remotest islanders of the Pacific. But similar attempts to connect American languages with the outside world break down. There are found in North America, from the Arctic to Mexico, some fifty-five groups of languages still existing or recently extinct. Throughout these we may trace the same affinities and relationships that run through the languages of Europe and Asia. We can also easily connect the speech of the natives of North America with that of natives of Central and of South America. Even if we had not the similarities of physical appearance, of tribal customs, and of general manners to argue from, we should be able to say with certainty that the various families of American Indians all belonged to one race. The Eskimos of Northern Canada are not Indians, and are perhaps an exception; it is possible that a connection may be traced between them and the prehistoric cave-men of Northern Europe. But the Indians belong to one great race, and show no connection in language or customs with the outside world. They belong to the American continent, it has been said, as strictly as its opossums and its armadillos, its maize and its golden rod, or any other of its aboriginal animals and plants.

But, here again, we must not conclude too much from the fact that the languages of America have no relation to those of Europe and Asia. This does not show that men originated separately on this continent. For even in Europe and Asia, where no one supposes that different races sprung from wholly separate beginnings, we find languages isolated in the same way. The speech of the Basques in the Pyrenees has nothing in common with the European families of languages.

We may, however, regard the natives of America as an aboriginal race, if any portion of mankind can be viewed as such. So far as we know, they are not an offshoot, or a migration, from any people of what is called the Old World, although they are, like the people of the other continents, the descendants of a primitive human stock.

We may turn to geology to find how long mankind has lived on this continent. In a number of places in North and South America are found traces of human beings and their work so old that in comparison the beginning of the world's written history becomes a thing of yesterday. Perhaps there were men in Canada long before the shores of its lakes had assumed their present form; long before nature had begun to hollow out the great gorge of the Niagara river or to lay down the outline of the present Lake Ontario. Let us look at some of the notable evidence in respect to the age of man in America. In Nicaragua, in Central America, the imprints of human feet have been found, deeply buried over twenty feet below the present surface of the soil, under repeated deposits of volcanic rock. These impressions must have been made in soft muddy soil which was then covered by some geological convulsion occurring long ages ago. Even more striking discoveries have been made along the Pacific coast of South America. Near the mouth of the Esmeraldas river in Ecuador, over a stretch of some sixty miles, the surface soil of the coast covers a bed of marine clay. This clay is about eight feet thick. Underneath it is a stratum of sand and loam such as might once have itself been surface soil. In this lower bed there are found rude implements of stone, ornaments made of gold, and bits of broken pottery. Again, if we turn to the northern part of the continent we find remains of the same kind, chipped implements of stone and broken fragments of quartz buried in the drift of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys. These have sometimes been found lying beside or under the bones of elephants and animals unknown in North America since the period of the Great Ice. Not many years ago, some men engaged in digging a well on a hillside that was once part of the beach of Lake Ontario, came across the remains of a primitive hearth buried under the accumulated soil. From its situation we can only conclude that the men who set together the stones of the hearth, and lighted on it their fires, did so when the vast wall of the northern glacier was only beginning to retreat, and long before the gorge of Niagara had begun to be furrowed out of the rock.

Many things point to the conclusion that there were men in North and South America during the remote changes of the Great Ice Age. But how far the antiquity of man on this continent reaches back into the preceding ages we cannot say.

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915

 

Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada


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