World wanderers

A now outdated map of the travels of the North America’s Athabascan tribes/Wikimedia Commons

Long before Europeans began the invasion of North America with the 10th-century arrival of the Vikings in what is now Canada, it appears Alaska Natives had begun invading Asia.

This new and latest information comes from a genetics study published in the peer-reviewed Current Biology that is rocking the world of archeology.

A multi-racial, multi-ethnic collection of researchers affiliated with German, Russian, Israeli and Korean research entities reported they had found evidence of  “multiple phases of Native American-related gene flow into northeastern Asia over the past 5,000 years, reaching the Kamchatka Peninsula and central Siberia” thousands of years ago.

Along with discovering wide, genetic connections between a variety of northern lineages of Homo sapiens and “unexpected genetic links between hunter-gatherer groups from the Japanese Archipelago and the Russian Far East,” they say their work “revealed that the gene pool of present-day Kamchatkan populations was shaped by a prolonged period of Native American-related gene flow over multiple millennia.”

None of this should come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with the history or prehistory of the species homo sapien although Inverse, an online magazine covering  technology, science, and culture for a millennial audience, portrayed the discovery as upending “our understanding of Native American migration.”

As if the human species ever stayed in one place for long in the larger picture of time.

Homo sapiens have been in a constant state of movement since they evolved out of Africa. In the historical context, the problems along the U.S.-Mexico border today are but a continuation of a history and prehistory wherein people constantly migrated in search of better lives or, prehistorically, in search of survival.

When the salmon failed to return or the wildlife abandoned the surrounding valleys of ancient Alaska or were killed off there or in the valleys of the sunken Beringia which once formed a land bridge between Alaska and Russia, the only choice was to move or starve to death.

Alaska was always a tough place to live, too, which is why there is a long track record of people leaving.

First linguists and later geneticists well documented the migration of Athabascans out of Alaska into the American Southwest where they became the American Indians later to be called Navajos and Apaches. The geneticists believe they arrived there about 500 years ago. 

Without identifying any sources, the website Native American Roots pushes their arrival back a little farther to “sometime in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s (when) groups of hunting and gathering Athabascan-speaking peoples began arriving in the Southwest from the far north in Canada.”

Whatever the case, the Spaniards weren’t far behind. Following Christoper Columbus’s “discovery” of the continent in 1492, they set about exploring the Caribbean Islands and Mexico and were venturing into what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas by the 1500s.

“In 1539 the viceroy of New Spain sent out a small expedition, led by Father Marcos de Niza and Estévan de Dorantes to search for wealth,” an official Arizona state history records. “When Father de Niza reported that he, too, found the fabled Seven Cities
of Cíbola, Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado organized his expedition. But Coronado found pueblos of stone and mud. A secondary expedition led by Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas revealed the Grand Canyon; another group, led by Don Pedro de Tovar, found the Hopi mesas.”

The Spanish were not discouraged by the lack of riches. By 1610, they had founded the community that is now Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Pilgrims were just beginning to think about crossing the Atlantic to reach the New World. In some parts of the Southwest, Hispanics and the Natives of Athabaskan descent could now have a lovely argument about exactly who arrived first in various locations, though the Pueblo Indians were already there.

Homo warisus

They were overrun by invaders from both south and north. The name Apache is thought to derive from a Spanish transliteration of ápachu, the term for “enemy” in the language of the Zuni Pueblo. 

“The Apache were known for their skills as warriors, especially their guerilla war tactics,” Tribalpedia says. “The name Apache struck fear in the hearts of the Pueblo tribes, and others including the Spanish, Mexican and American settlers. The Apache raided the Pueblo villages for food and livestock. When the Spaniards arrived they hunted Indians to serve as slaves in the silver mines of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. This in turn, caused the Apache to raid the Spanish settlements for cattle, horses, firearms and captives. The fighting prowess of the Apaches became legendary.”

Know one knows if the Athabascans who returned to Asia were more or less fierce, but it is doubtful they will always friendly because the history of the human species is a history of war, war and more war.

On the Kamchatka Peninsula jutting into the Bering Strait almost due west of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, it now appears Alaska Natives invaded from the north and west long before Russians invaded from the east with eyes on a bigger prize across the Bering Strait. It was from Kamchatka that the Russian empire launched its excursions into what was to become Alaska.

Those explorations began in the mid-1600s,  not long after Jamestown became the first established European colony on the East Coast of North America. and continued intermittently for a century. The Russians started off poorly.

“Before he died, Czar Peter the Great sent a Dane named Vitus Bering to search for a route to America from Kamchatka,” the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute now recounts. “Bering reached Cape Dezhnev (the easternmost post in Asia)  in 1728, established that a passage existed, and turned back on being alarmed by the cruelty of the local Chukchi tribes.”

Thirteen years later, another Bering-led expedition sighted Alaska, but another 43 years would pass before Europeans from Russia managed to establish their first Alaska colony on Kodiak Island in 1784.  As has been the case since the beginning of recorded time, the search for riches played a key role.

Victory in 1721 in “the Great Northern War established Russia as Europe’s dominant military force – and prompted a formal declaration that its tsar, Peter the Great, was presiding over a full-fledged empire – Russia actively worked to expand its global footprint,” according to History. 

“To do that, Peter and his heirs recognized that they’d need to look eastward – to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, to what is now the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan coast. The allure? Not only the chance to seize more land, but the opportunity to maintain Russian dominance of the lucrative fur trade, which at its peak in Peter the Great’s lifetime, accounted for more than 10 percent of the empire’s total revenues.”

The fur trade proved to be bloody for both animals and people.

Resource conservation was an idea still more than 100 years in the future, and the Russians spreading east from Russia east across the Pacific Ocean did as the French, English and Germans spreading west across the Atlantic Ocean: They took all they could from the land and when there was no more moved on.

Russia’s arrival in Alaska came after decimating the sea otter and fur seal populations along the western shores of what by then was being called the Bering Sea. The Russians showed little tolerance for the Natives already living in Alaska.

“…It was a notable Siberian merchant and fur trader named Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov who ultimately founded Russia’s first permanent settlement,” according to History.  “Shelikhov spelled out his colonial philosophy in a letter to one of his aides two years later, instructing the latter to ‘subjugate’ Indigenous populations, who he described as licentious, willful and lazy.

“‘Every one of them must be told that people who are loyal and reliable will prosper under the rule of our Empress (Catherine the Great) but that all rebels will be totally exterminated by her strong hand,’ he wrote. Shelihov had already demonstrated that philosophy when he pursued early resisters, Kodiak’s Alutiiq people, to a remote outpost known as Awa’uq, or Refuge Rock. He slaughtered hundreds, and seized more as hostages.”

This was the norm for the times.

Everyone did it

What has come to be called “The Bow and Arrow Wars Days”  was then raging on the Yukon-Kuskokwim rivers delta to the north and west of Kodiak, and it was every bit as brutal as the warfare waged by the Russians or the Southwest Athabascans.

“The Bow and Arrow War Days imperiled lives and made legends of great men and women in the Yup’ik world prior to the arrival of Russians in the mid-1800s AD,” the anthropologist Caroline Funk has written of what she describes as a “socially cataclysmic process” that lasted for decades.

“The Bow and Arrow War Days are little known outside Alaska,” she added. “This may be due to the erroneous notion held among Westerners that Eskimos in general, and Yupiit in particular, are peaceful, loving individuals.”

The same might be said of the general, American misperception of what the continental 48 states of North America were like before the arrival of Europeans.  There is now a common and widespread belief that the arrival of Christoper Columbus on the southern edge of the Americas in 1492 began the destruction of a human paradise, but the reality is that the world everywhere has been a hard and often brutal place through human history and prehistory.

The truly biggest difference between the European continent and the North American continent is that the inhabitants of the former acquired the written word and began recording their history somewhere around 5,000 or 6,000 years ago while the latter did not, leaving the wars of North America largely unrecorded except in oral histories and the archeological record.

The oral histories of the Bow and Arrow Wars record events every bit as horrifying as some of those going on in the American west at the same time. And some have hypothesized these wars may have rage for a thousand years much as the wars of Europe have raged since the beginning of recorded history.

Humans are, at the end of the day, animals.

“Whenever the precise beginnings,” Funk writes, “war began for the Triangle Yupiit (of the Y-K) deep enough in the past that it is considered a constant way of life in the oral histories….The Triangle warfare followed the general rules of Alaskan warfare, employing tactics such as sneak raids, ambush, the occasional battle, total annihilation of the enemy when possible, hostage exchanges for truce, lookout and warning systems, and spying for intelligence.

“The main goal, which supported the desires of surprising the enemy and winning, was that a successful raiding party should include more members than the village to be attacked. This is near universal wisdom throughout the Arctic.

“Some of the raid oral histories are incomplete, providing only the information that a camp or village was ‘wiped out’…In one such attack, the entire population was murdered, beat to death with qayaq paddles, resulting in a red coloration in the land and water that exists to this day. This particular story has a sense of mythic time, but it does not stand alone as a description of brutal, annihilation-oriented raiding techniques.”

The injustices and unfairnesses of the U.S. today pale in comparison to what was the norm of the country’s past recent history though modern “social justice” warriors seem to have no clue. The ancients would have envied the lives of modern Americans no matter their race, ethnicity, creed, or sexual orientation.

And yet the country is locked in a culture war full of elements of race, religion, sexual orientation and plain, old lifestyle. Goodly parts of it are grounded in a lousy understanding of history which now shows, thanks to modern genetics, that when we aren’t killing each other we are capable of loving each other.

The blended family

The PBS television show “Finding Your Roots” should be required viewing for everyone in the country. Host Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, regularly walks celebrities back through family histories that show them both victims and victimizers and into genetic histories even more complex.

Aside from those with an Ashkenazi Jewish history, his guests pretty well define the United States as the great melting pot it was said to be before the rejection of that idea by a rising wave of so-called multiculturalism.  But whatever one calls the American mixture, DNA testing makes clear there has massive interbreeding of races, ethnicities and cultures taking place on the continent over the course of not just hundreds of years but thousands of years.

Almost no one, aside from a few of those Ashkenazis whose gene flow hit repeated bottlenecks as the were massacred by fellow Europeans throughout the ages because of their Jewish faith, almost no one in this country is a pure anything. Americans are one big tribe of mongrels or crossbreeds or “half breeds,” as the people of Aniak, a small village not far from the once bloody Y-K Delta still call themselves.

‘”Alaska Native village proud of ‘Halfbreeds’ nickname,” IndianZ, a Native American website, headlined 18 years ago: “In the 1970s, (Aniak) students voted to adopt the new name, along with a symbol of a Native man holding a spear next to a white man holding a rifle.”

Whether such a headline would be written today is questionable. Times change. Even if the students in Aniak still cling to their names – the Halfbreeds placed third in the State Mixed 6 (Volleyball) Tournament this year – political correctness would likely stop many mainstream news organizations from using the name.

The Urban Dictionary’s favored rating calls it a “racist term.’The Merriam-Webster Dictionary labels it “offensive.” Neither offers an explanation as to why. Some dictionaries suggest the term should be replaced with “mixed race” though there are people who don’t like that either.

“Mixed, I now understand, is an insult. Things are mixed, not people,” reported Leah Donnella at NPR. Some appear to see a similar problem with half-breed in that only animals should be called “breeds,” and some appear to think its wrong to call anyone half of anything.

And, of course, this is all even more complicated in today’s world where what you “are” based on your background is sometimes considered less relevant than what you “identify” as.  These problems didn’t exist even 100 years ago. Then many people were still worrying about the physical risks of interacting with those they didn’t know and not so much about what words might be used in those interactions.

One could almost come to the conclusion that when the species lacks for big issues to fight over it goes looking for lesser issues to fight over. It is as if warfare defines us, and maybe it does because there is no denying that it has and it continues to do so.

The World Population Review reports more than two dozen countries currently at war as defined by “a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country.” Most of those countries are in Africa, but the highest profile war is raging between Russia and Ukraine in Eastern Europe.

America’s culture war is not included. We should probably be happy that we have evolved to the point that our warfare now focuses heavily on telling each other how to behave though there are parts of the country where opinions are still unfortunately expressed with violence.








6 replies »

  1. In the 1600s, the Iroquois in their Beaver Wars totally annihilated some Great Lakes tribes and ruthlessly forced a number of powerful-in-their-own-right tribes out of their former N.E. habitations and spread them NW, W, and SW. Any reader of old writings of the day will see Native American’s first love was war upon each other, followed by hunting, then domestic life. Virtually no indigenous group lived in any area without taking it from another people group that had taken it from former dwellers, and so on, back and back. Some whites who had grown enough in their concern worried that tribes would exterminate each other when they obtained the effective means–repeating firearms. I was surprised at how much some age-old animosities remain embedded to this day when a Cree-Ojibeway friend who had hitch-hiked from the east to Alaska, told me that as he passed through Sioux country he traveled guardedly, only at night, to avoid detection.

    One benefit of the Iditarod Race no one talks about either because they don’t go back long enough to have heard the many racial clash stories, or because of political correctness, is how the early-years runnings got Athabascans, Yupic, and Inupiat mixing and enjoying each other. A lot of the stories I have heard from my Native friends are humorous from our distance and angles, but in their day they were fearful and vengeful, coming from deadly animosities and atrocities.

    Europeans should have been advanced way beyond such interracial abuse and cruelties, but the Inquisition was still going on in Spain into the 1760s in all its barbaric tortures.

    • Yup. We tend to be a very tribal and often unfriendly species. It’s sad to see those who think themselves well-meaning now encouraging the tribalism.

    • The torture, rape, murder, and slavery that was common place during the various inter-tribal wars, raids, and skirmishes have largely been forgotten or outright deliberately removed from the historical record. During raids all adult males would be routinely killed, sometimes they would be taken captive to torture later, scalping was normal. Women would be raped and killed or taken as slaves. Young children would be tossed in the air an impaled on spears, or taken as replacements for their own dead and adopted by the very people who raped and killed their families. Those who were captured to be tortured later would have fingernails removed, they would be burned on various body parts and beaten, ears and fingers would be chopped off…the idea was to prolong the agony until the captive was finally immolated. Sometimes the heart of the tortured captive would be eaten, if they showed themselves to be particularly courageous throughout the torture.

      While the term savage has been used derisively, it was and is an apt description for the actions listed above.

  2. Craig, this post/article is one of your more informative ones. Very much enjoyed and learned from it. More of this, less of the negative political comments. Thanks.

  3. See geneticist, Adam Rutherford’s book, A brief history of everyone who ever lived. Who went where all depends on how far back in time you want to look.

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