Bones: Discovering the First Americans

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Bones—the remains of ancient New World natives now lying in museums and university laboratories across the Americas—are at the center of the scientific and cultural battles described in this provocative book. These bones, award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar asserts, challenge the accepted theory that the first Americans descend from a Mongoloid people who migrated across the Bering land bridge to Alaska at the end of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago. With Native American activists, white supremacists,...
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Bones—the remains of ancient New World natives now lying in museums and university laboratories across the Americas—are at the center of the scientific and cultural battles described in this provocative book. These bones, award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar asserts, challenge the accepted theory that the first Americans descend from a Mongoloid people who migrated across the Bering land bridge to Alaska at the end of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago. With Native American activists, white supremacists, DNA experts, and physical anthropologists—all vying for control of ancient bones like those of the Caucasoid Kennewick Man—Dewar explores the politics of archaeology, history, law, native spirituality, and race relations at work in this scientific battlefield. She reports, too, on the contention among the experts over alternative theories that suggest the New World may have been populated as early as 60,000 years ago, perhaps by Polynesian voyagers who sailed to South America. "Bound to shake archaeologists out of their complacency."—Canadian Geographic "Provocative ... likely to rattle the old bones of orthodoxy."—Calgary Herald
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Dewar, a Canadian investigative journalist whose expos Cloak of Green probed the dark underbrush of environmental politics, returns here to dust off North American anthropology's skeletons in the closet. The author profiles a handful of scientists whose research debunks the prevailing theory that the first Americans came here on foot from Siberia over the Bering Strait during the last ice age; she also presents controversial archaeological, genetic and folkloric evidence suggesting that humans settled in South America at least 1,000 years earlier. Furthermore, she says, finds like the Caucasoid Kennewick Man, discovered in a Washington State riverbed, suggest that somebody beat the forebears of modern Native Americans to these shores. The truth is out there, but as Dewar argues, proper research has been thwarted time and again by stiff-necked academic careerism, the "dirty water of ethnic politics" and just plain carelessness bones mysteriously "disappear" from museum storerooms, labs forget to conduct crucial DNA studies and so forth. This is popular rather than hard science, and there are gripping moments, but had she written half as much book, Dewar would have told a leaner, more vibrant story. But Dewar is a keen observer of place and personality, and the scientists she interviews are the real heart of the story she wishes to tell which is perhaps why her argument sometimes gets buried in pages of anecdotal narrative. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We've all been taught that the first Americans crossed a land bridge over the Bering Sea about 11,000 years ago and continued down to Tierra del Fuego, populating two continents. Canadian journalist Dewar (Cloak of Green) explores emerging research that calls into question that venerated theory. In this lengthy, detailed, and well-written story, the author explores the saga of the Kennewick Man, findings in Peru that show dates much earlier than expected, mummies discovered in Nevada that do not fit the accepted time lines, and more to illuminate the current state of archaeology in the Americas. With the flair of a mystery writer, Dewar explores the conflicting theories as they are influenced by academic and personal jealousies, government interference, ethnic concerns, mishandled artifacts all the human and bureaucratic folly that have gotten in the way of the science. A revealing and informative look not only at the archaeology in question but at the convoluted, intricate, and very human difficulties involved in "doing science," this book is recommended for academic and large public libraries or where interest warrants. Ann Forister, Roseville P.L., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Where did North Americans come from way back when, asks Canadian journalist Dewar (Cloak of Green, not reviewed, etc.), in this eye-opening study for laypeople that debates the merits of archaeological theories swirling about the question.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786709793
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/1/2002
  • Pages: 640
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Elaine Dewar is an award-winning investigative journalists whose beats include culture, international politics, science, business, and the environment. Reviewing Bones, historian Peter C. Newman has called Dewar “the Rachel Carson of Canada,” whose work “is aimed always at expanding mental horizons . . . This is a must read.” Dewar lives in Toronto.
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Read an Excerpt


This book begins with a simple question. Where did Native Americans come from? I know I was given an answer when I was just a child, before I had learned enough about the world, and enough about how we learn about the world, to eve ask the question for myself. This answer was a comfort to immigrants and the children of immigrants as they broke ground, built towns and cities from one end of the hemisphere to the other, and muscles aside the descendants of people who were in the Americas before them. It often popped up before the question could be formed, particularly in those scarce moments of moral hesitation when new immigrants came face to face with those they had displaced, and recognized that Native Americans were suffering and dying even as they, the newcomers, prospered. For more than a century this answer was ready for anyone who needed it: Native Americans came from somewhere else—from Asia. All are descendants of the same immigrant people.

I was born in the middle of the twentieth century on the Great Plains—in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I am the grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived there when it was still a frontier called the Northwest Territories. The government of Canada promised free land if my grandparents would go to the Prairies and bust the sod. And so they left the wars and racism and religious hatreds of Russia and Romania, migrating halfway around the globe to the New World. They helped to colonize the beautiful and frigid prairies. Their first homes were sod houses, built of the thick squares of turf they cut out of the ground. They were known as pioneers, as if no one had ever been therebefore them.

If they had regrets about being part of a process that ended the ancient and complex relationship between Native peoples and their lands, I never heard them discuss it. By the time I came along, they were city folk with their own businesses (although my mother’s father held fast to his northern farm for many years, not letting go even after his tractor fell on him, when he was eighty-five). Native people had been pushed so far to the margins of society that my contact with them came mainly at fairs and parades and multicultural festivals where ethnics of all sorts came forward, in costume, to sing their foreign songs and dance their foreign dances. We were all immigrants together in the New World and therefore in my mind we were equivalent: we came from Eastern Europe, they came from Asia. I did the hora, they had their powwows, their drums and their fancy dancing. We came on boats and built the railroads. Exactly how they came was a matter to be determined by science because they had no written histories, just stories about their origins, encased in languages that no one but the old people spoke anymore. Governments and church schools tried to wipe those languages away because they interfered with the process of making Native Americans just like everybody else. If the Native people were unhappy about that we didn’t hear of it. (How could they complain? Status Indians in Canada only got the right to vote in 1960.) It was up to science to dig up the Truth — and teach it to them.

Copyright 2001 by Elaine Dewar
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Asian Origins?: Clovis First Across the Bering Strait 11
2 Bones 101: A Sordid History Begets a Compromised Science 27
3 Found and Lost: The Misplaced Remains of the Accepted Path 51
4 The Battle for Monte Verde: Rewriting the First American Story - by Committee 71
5 The Founding Mothers: The Spectral Trial of Mitochondrial DNA 102
6 Virtual Bones: Are Reburied Remains Hard Evidence? 130
7 The Kennewick Chronicles: Science, History, Politics, Religion ... and the United States Army 153
8 Excavating the Museum Shelves: Weaving a New Image of Ancient Americans 185
9 We were Always Here: Some Native American Histories 206
10 Pendejo Cave: Indiana Jones Digs Down to the Foundation 226
11 Beneath the Southern Cross: The Road Leads Back in Time 255
12 Lunch with Luzia: The Fine African Features of the Oldest Woman in the Americas 262
13 Proof Parasite: A Wormhole in the Bering Strait Theory 280
14 Revisionist Prehistory: Bones Beyond the Bounds of Accepted Theory 291
15 Brazilian Edens: The Sheltered Finds of Minas Gerais 314
16 Science Contender: Dispatches from the Most Ancient Trenches 351
17 Pedra Furada: Ancient Arts of the Little People 378
18 Science under Fire: The Inquisition of Karl Reinhard 399
19 The Kennewick Shuffle: Dancing Around the Hard Questions 417
20 The Reverse Migration: North, by Boat 448
21 The Corridor That Wasn't: The Cold Facts Behind the Absence of Evidence 470
22 Hard Science, Hardball Politics: Kennewick Reevaluated 497
23 Going Home: Burying the Bones, Treasuring the Past 519
Epilogue 545
Acknowledgements 553
Endnotes 557
Bibliography 581
Index 611
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2002

    Excellent in parts, awful in parts

    Dewar has attempted to combine an investigation into the peopling of the Americas with a consideration of whether the researchers or the Native Americans should control the relics of the past. Unfortunately, the book is very uneven in quality, even disjointed, and if one might say that life is disjointed, it would still have behooved Dewar to examine the disconnects. I found it worth reading since I'm interested in the topic and she presents information that I haven't encountered before, but I did have to keep reminding myself not to grind my teeth. I really agonized between giving this a 3 or a 4. Both because of her attempt to catch the process of science as well as the results (which I applaud) and her many, many digressions (which I hated) I wouldn't recommend it to someone who just wants to know what the present thought on the topic is. -- I almost put the book down around page 10. In the first place, I wish authors would not attempt to sneak autobiographies into their books; even after Dewar's research gets going she tells us more than I care to know about her airplane flights and the places she eats. More significantly, it makes no difference to me if Native Americans came to this continent 99,999 years BP, or in 1450 AD or evolved here from Homo erectus migrants. They were here when the ancestors of anyone else living here came and were barbarously pushed aside. Even if they were just as violent as their supplanters, the point is that we are trying to create a new ethic against shoving aside people just because we can, similar to the attempt to abolish that other ancient and nearly universal human custom, slavery. -- The book was fascinating for the next 300 pages or so as Dewar talks with various researchers about their own and other people's work often, admirably, allowing for rebuttals. (She was rather unhappy when James Chatters turned the tables and grilled her.) If that makes some of them look bad, well maybe they'll learn to stop shooting their mouths off. There is a world of difference between inquiring whether one's learned and esteemed colleague checked to make sure that there is no evidence of a forest fire that might have produced surprising ancient charcoal and making vicious accusations of incompetence and fraud when one has never actually examined the evidence. It is very significant to consider, in weighing the claims of researchers versus Native Americans, the care that scientific institutions have taken of the remains that they have in their hands already. I'm not learned enough in the subject myself to really judge her competence, but she sounded knowledgeable most of the time and the bibliography was impressive. There were one or two questions that made me wonder if she was bluffing, and she wasn't always entirely even-handed, but on the whole, she was pretty impressive. The book flags serious during her account of her trip to Brazil, largely because she spends more time recounting her trip and less recounting the research that I picked up this book to read about. At one point, she becomes fascinated by some ancient paintings and spends a great deal of time arguing about the intended subjects with her hosts. The argument strikes me as a waste of time, and potentially exasperating to her hosts, and it was utterly boring to read about it since with the exception of the cover and the dingbat, we can't see the pictures in question. This is especially frustrating: since I only read English this research is much less available to me than US or Canadian studies. -- Her attempts to consider Native American sensibilities, on the other hand, while well-meaning, are a combination of arms-length sentimentality and New Age fuzzy thinking. Dewar does very little to seek out Native American informants, with the exception of a couple of story-tellers, and the information that she picks up from incidentally encountered informants makes it clear that their attitud

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