Peopling Of The Americas Essay

This long essay began as an effort on the part of the great historian Bernard Bailyn to organize his own thoughts after three years of work on his epic multivolume series The Peopling of British North America, the first volume of which, Voyagers to the West, won a Pulitzer Prize.  This published version is based on Bailyn's Curti Lectures at the University of Wisconsin. Bailyn's topic, if not evident from the title, is the:

    ...movement of people outward from their original centers of habitation--the centrifugal
    Volkerwanderungen that involved an untraceable multitude of local, small-scale exoduses and
    colonizations, the continuous creation of new frontiers and ever-widening  circumferences, the
    complex intermingling of peoples in the expanding border areas, and in the massive transfer to the
    Western Hemisphere of people from Africa, from the European mainland, and above all from the
    Anglo-Celtic offshore islands of Europe, culminating in what Bismarck called 'the decisive fact in
    the modern world,' the peopling of the North American continent.

According to Bailyn, and I know of no reason to doubt him, this massive process has not been studied to any great degree in the past.  His effort is intended to correct this oversight and he here lays out a series of propositions which guide his thinking about the topic:


    The peopling of British North America was an extension outward and an expansion in scale of
    domestic mobility in the lands of the immigrants' origins, and the transantlantic flow must be
    understood within the context of these domestic mobility patterns.  Ultimately, however, its
    development introduced a new and dynamic force in European population history, which
    permanently altered the traditional configuration.


    Examination of the settlement and development patterns for the whole of British North America
    reveals not uniformity, but highly differentiated processes, which form the context of the
    immigrants' arrival.  The fortunes of the arriving newcomers must be seen against this varied and
    shifting background.


    After the initial phase of colonization, the major stimuli to population recruitment and settlements
    were, first, the continuing need for labor, and, second, land speculation.  There were, as a result,
    two overlapping but yet distinctly different migration processes in motion throughout those years.
     Both linked America to Europe and Africa in a highly dynamic relationship and together account
    for much of the influx of people.  But they drew on different socio-economic groups and involved
    different modes of integration into the society.  And land speculation shaped a relationship between
    the owners and the workers of the land different from that which prevailed in Europe.


    American culture in this early period becomes most fully comprehensible when seen as the exotic
    far western periphery, a marchland, of the metropolitan European culture system.

Most of this seems pretty unexceptionable--after all, in grade school, we learn that Virginia was settled by the wealthy, New England by Puritans, Maryland by Catholics,  Pennsylvania by Quakers, New Jersey by Swedes and New York by the Dutch, why would be surprised that the immigrants do not fit a uniform pattern?--but as he develops the propositions a little further, some fresh thoughts emerge.  For one thing, he makes a strong case for the idea that land speculation in America was widespread and cut across the entire economic strata, virtually from the day the first immigrants got here.  This notion serves as a counter balance to the prevailing wisdom that such schemes were a late arrival and were a tool of absentee capitalists used to exploit innocent agrarians.

Another particularly useful idea is contained in Proposition Four; the idea that many of the peculiarities of American culture (religious fanaticisms and odd cults) and much of the brutality (the raw savagery displayed, by men and women, in war against the Indians) actually resulted from the internal contradictions and rough edges of our European cultural inheritance being freed from the restraints of the institutions which had kept them in check.  Here on the periphery of Western Civilization:

    All of these overt violations of ordinary civil order--Indian wars, slavery, garrison government, the
    transportation of criminals--though they permeated the developing culture, overspecify and
    overdramatize, make too lurid, an issue that had much subtler and broader manifestations.  The less
    physical aspects of the colonies' peculiarities were equally important.  For ultimately the colonies'
    strange ways were only distensions and combinations of elements that existed in the parent cultures,
    but that existed there within constraints that limited, shaped, and in a sense civilized their growth.
    These elements were here released, fulfilled--at times with strange results that could not have been

This seems like a useful way of thinking about not merely matters like the genocidal policy towards Indians in America, but also the equally rough treatment of native populations elsewhere on the West's perimeter : South Africa, Australia, India, etc..

There is something odd though about Bailyn's utter deemphasis on the ideology and beliefs of immigrants.  The external factors which he has identified must have been quite powerful, but were they really determinative of the whole process?  It makes perfect sense that the movement of peoples to North America would be in part an outgrowth of general patterns of mobility in Europe, that later immigrant waves would be attracted by jobs and land and that North American culture would reflect it's European heritage.  But if we consider the fundamental tension in society to lie between the desire for freedom and the desire for security, as I have frequently argued in these pages, then surely the thing that stands out most about these early American pioneers is the degree to which they were willing to completely forsake security in order to find freedom.  After all, while immigrants of the 19th and 20th Century can be understood to have been taking advantage of preexisting opportunities in an industrialized America, the first few generations of settlers faced a much more perilous future trying to hack a living out of an unknown and often hostile land, already inhabited by natives with whom relations ran none too smoothly.

The imbalance in early America, in favor of freedom with no regard for security, must have influenced precisely what types of people were willing to come and take on the forbidding wilderness and it must have had a profound effect on the type of culture that they developed here.  At least in this introduction, Bailyn does not seem much concerned with the influence of ideas, which I find to be a major shortcoming of the work.  Hopefully, this glaring oversight is rectified in the actual volumes of the series.

The traditional story of human migration in the Americas goes like this: A group of stone-age people moved from the area of modern-day Siberia to Alaska when receding ocean waters created a land bridge between the two continents across the Bering Strait. Once across, the giant Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets, which blocked southern Alaska and the Yukon Territory in western Canada, halted the migrants' progress. But about 13,000 years ago, the ice sheets began retreating, opening a 900-mile-long ice-free corridor following the Canadian Rockies. This, many researchers believe, is how the Clovis culture moved south and colonized other parts of the Americas.

But new evidence has made that timeline hazy over the last decade. Research shows that humans were living south of the ice sheets before the ice-free corridor opened up. A settlement in Monte Verde, Chile, shows people had made it all the way down South America 15,000 years ago and a more recent discovery indicates that humans hunted mammoth in Florida 14,500 years ago.

Now, a new study by an international team of researchers may finally rip the ice corridor hypothesis out of the textbooks once and for all. Using sediment cores and DNA analysis, the scientists reconstructed the corridor's environment. This research shows that there just weren’t enough resources in the pass for the earliest human migrants to successfully make the crossing.

“The bottom line is that even though the physical corridor was open by 13,000 years ago, it was several hundred years before it was possible to use it,” project leader Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist from the University of Copenhagen and Cambridge University, says in a press release. “That means that the first people entering what is now the US, Central and South America must have taken a different route. Whether you believe these people were Clovis, or someone else, they simply could not have come through the corridor, as long claimed.”

Nicholas Wade at The New York Times reports the researchers looked at an area of the ice-free corridor that was once part of a large lake dubbed Glacial Lake Peace that would have blocked the path. The migrants would not have been able to cross the 6,000-square-mile body of water until it began to recede, an event that would show up in the lake bed sediments in the remains of plants and animals.

Today, that area is covered by Lake Charlie in British Columbia and Spring Lake in Alberta. The team visited the lakes during winter, drilling down into the lake beds to gather sediment cores.

They then applied a technique called “shotgun sequencing” to the materials they brought up, which allowed them to date when plants and animals began colonizing the lake bed. “Instead of looking for specific pieces of DNA from individual species, we basically sequenced everything in there, from bacteria to animals,” Willerslev says in the release. “It’s amazing what you can get out of this. We found evidence of fish, eagles, mammals and plants.”

Wade reports that the scraps of ancient DNA show how Lake Peace receded, slowly opening the ice corridor. Grasses, sedges, birch and willow began colonizing the edges of the shrinking lake, and as it dried, they found evidence of bison, voles, and jack rabbits moving in starting around 12,500 years ago. That means it’s unlikely the area produced enough resources like food and wood for the long migration before that date. Instead, early humans probably followed the Pacific Coast around the ice sheets when colonizing the Americas.   

The study echoes another paper that came out in June. In that study, researchers looked at the DNA of northern and southern populations of bison concluding they did not intermingle until 13,000 years ago, meaning the corridor was blocked till then.

Now, to complete the story of human migration in the Americas researchers need to focus on evidence along the coast. That's tricky since erosion, tides and now the effects of climate change make coastal archeological sites very rare.

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About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

Read more from this author | Follow @jasondaley608

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