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Jennifer Raff’s ‘Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas’—A Review

· 13 min read
Jennifer Raff’s ‘Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas’—A Review
Late 16th-century engraving depicting a funeral conducted by members of the Timucua tribe

Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas was published with much fanfare in February, garnering a rave New York Times review. And as of this writing, it is listed as one of the top 10 books about genetics on Amazon. The success reflects the fact that the University of Kansas anthropological geneticist offers a somewhat spectacular-seeming thesis: While we have traditionally been taught that North America was populated 13,000 years ago by migrants who crossed the frozen Bering Strait land bridge, Raff argues that the migration came largely along the Pacific coast. Or as the Times headline writer put it, “Did the First Americans Arrive via Land Bridge? This Geneticist Says No.”

But this description oversells the book, as Raff never really overturns the traditional migration thesis. Even in building her more limited case regarding coastal arrivals, moreover, she fails to deal convincingly with the available evidence from DNA data and other sources. And on crucial points, she tends to defer to beliefs of modern “descendant” communities that aren’t rooted in science. In this way, the book exemplifies a problem I’ve highlighted previously in Quillette: the prioritization of politics over science in the academic treatment of Indigenous history and culture.

Origin’s nine chapters span just 270 pages—most of which pass before the author provides any real in-depth discussion of ancient-DNA research involving the peopling of the Americas. Much of the book, including the lengthy first chapter, is taken up with a rehash of the historical wrongs committed by other anthropologists and archaeologists.

For instance, Raff chastises Czech-American scholar Aleš Hrdlička (1869–1943), the first president of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, as a mediocre anthropologist. And it is true that Hrdlička’s methods, though typical for his day, would scandalize modern academics. Yet he was the scientist who originally pioneered the (by now) long-accepted scientific theory that the Americas were colonized by east Asians (though Hrdlička got the dating wrong, believing the migration to have taken place within the last 5,000 years). By modern lights, Hrdlička and his contemporaries were guilty of all manner of thoughtcrimes. And listing them off is like shooting fish in a barrel for Raff. But without the groundbreaking work conducted by these early anthropologists, later generations of academics would have found themselves starting from scratch.

Raff also spends considerable time on the long-debunked mound-builder myth—the racist belief that Native Americans could not have built the large burial mounds that Europeans found in the mid-western and southern parts of what is now the United States. As Raff tells us, the mounds’ construction was falsely attributed to some mythical lost tribe of Israel, or ancient wayfaring Europeans. But this debunking has been done before. And these myths never really fell into the category of serious archaeological history in the first place, but rather were quasi-religious narratives inspired by racism and Mormonism. (Interested readers can find this kind of topic explained in Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, by Stephen Williams). And so it’s not clear what this material is doing in a book that promises a serious and systematic explanation of how the Americas were populated.

The 2,200-year-old Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia.

Raff is keen to bring a modern anti-racist lens to her subject. But the facts don’t always fully co-operate with her approach. In regard to the Folsom, New Mexico site where archaeologists found 10,000-year-old tools and bison bones, for instance, Raff claims that a lack of attention was paid to the location because it had been discovered, in 1908, by a freed black slave named George McJunkin. Although I have no doubt that racism played a role in any number of interactions McJunkin had throughout his life, it’s important to note that he was supervising Anglo and Mexican ranch hands at the time of the discovery. Moreover, alternative tellings of the story have it that McJunkin made deliberate efforts to keep the site secret; or that he reached out to friends and associates who either could not, or would not, make the arduous trek out to the remote site simply to look at bison bones (as evidence of human presence had not yet been found). In the 1920s, a ranch worker named Carl Schwachheim managed to convince a car owner to go out to the site with him, and it was only in 1926 that Jesse Dade Figgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, discovered human artifacts.

George McJunkin

At another point, Raff breaks off to explain the difference between sex and gender, and claims that there are “no neat divisions between physically or genetically ‘male’ or ‘female’ individuals.” In discussing possible evidence of the remains of female hunters at a site in Peru dating to 9,000 years ago, Raff claims that we have no idea whether the biological female in question had considered herself female, or whether she would have seen herself as belonging to some other category entirely, since Indigenous cultures have diverse concepts of gender, unlike the “duality imposed by Christian colonizers.” In writing Origin, Raff seems to have been eager to pay homage to every current progressive orthodoxy. Her book even comes with a land acknowledgement.

Some of Raff’s material is just plain wrong. She claims that colonizers introduced smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza to the Americas, which then decimated the tribal populations. Smallpox was most certainly brought to the New World by European colonizers, and it may have been used as a form of biological warfare. However, it is unlikely that smallpox was as deadly to Native Americans as once assumed, since the disease did not spread widely westward due to the Americas’ low population density at the time. Moreover, the other two diseases mentioned, tuberculosis and influenza, were unlikely to have been brought to the Americas by European colonizers. There is growing evidence that influenza did not emerge from domesticated pigs brought by Europeans, but rather from a virus in wild waterfowl, creatures with which both New World and Old World populations had frequent interactions. Finally, tuberculosis has been discovered in South American mummies, in bison roaming Wyoming, and identified skeletally in pre-contact south-western populations. Much of this research has been available for decades.

I should disclose that Raff and her political commitments were known to me even before I read her book: She signed an open letter expressing “shock and disappointment” in regard to my own book (co-authored with James W. Springer), Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020). And in Origin, Raff cites a reviewer who criticizes Repatriation and Erasing the Past’s defense of the use of discovered Paleo-Indians’ bones for research. She claims that failing to repatriate ancient human remains to modern tribes causes “deep trauma and harm” to Indigenous communities. Putting aside whether this presumption is true in all (or even most) cases, my own view is that scientific research should generally take priority.

That said, I agree with much of what Raff writes in the book’s latter chapters about ancient DNA research. She correctly dispels the notion that this kind of research is simple. (Only a few specialized labs can do it. And even scientists at these facilities are often unable to extract usable DNA information from submitted samples.) Raff also correctly sets out much of the genetic evidence for the peopling of the Americas, including the evidence that points away from the predominant “Clovis First” (Bering land bridge) theory, and toward her preferred Kelp Highway (Pacific Coast) hypothesis.

But the idea that this book introduces some stunning new framework that will change the way we think of North American Indigenous populations simply isn’t true: The Kelp Highway hypothesis has been routinely discussed by archaeologists for decades. Even in the 1990s, when I took my undergraduate Introduction to Archaeology class, it was included in the syllabus as a possible alternative (or addition) to explain the first migrations of New World peoples.

As noted above, the Clovis First theory presents the Americas as having been peopled by travellers coming east from Asia across the Bering Strait, which was a frozen-over land bridge during the Last Glacial Maximum. Depending on which view you follow, these early migrants either lived in the northern area known as Beringia, perhaps for several thousand years, before moving south; or kept moving south on a relatively continuous basis. Either way, they don’t appear to have moved deep into the North American continent until about 12,000 years ago, which is the period to which many artifacts and skeletons are dated. So-called “Clovis points” have been traced to various sites around North America. And the consistent shape of these pointed stone weapons supports the idea of a single migratory surge into the Americas and a fairly quick dispersal throughout the American land mass.

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske site in Cedar County, Iowa.

The Kelp Highway hypothesis, which Raff prefers, presents Paleoindians as having arrived from Asia somewhat earlier, travelling across the Bering land bridge, and then down along ice-free coastal waters to areas along the Pacific coast. As mentioned earlier, this idea is not new, having been proposed by NYU biologist Calvin Heusser more than six decades ago. Unfortunately, it is hard to validate because early settlement sites along the coast could now be underwater (though it should be said that there are few archaeological sites that have been discovered along the inland route, too). The Kelp Highway hypothesis has natural appeal to those who seek to trace the human presence in the Americas to an earlier date, as it presents the Beringia population as expanding and thriving during the period between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, with the subsequent southward migration resulting from population pressures.

The clearest evidence for the Kelp Highway hypothesis (or, at least, for the incompleteness of the Clovis First theory), is the existence of pre-Clovis archaeological sites—a topic that Raff properly focuses on in her book. I am not a doctrinaire supporter of Clovis First; and I agree with Raff insofar as the evidence suggests a somewhat earlier entry into the Americas. (Around 15,000 years ago seems a good estimate.) Moreover, my own reading of the available evidence on bones, genetics, and linguistics suggests there were multiple migrations into the Americas. But breaking new ground in this area would require a close and expert examination of pre-Clovis sites. And this is something that Raff—who candidly falls back on the disclaimer that she’s not an archaeologist—doesn’t provide.

What Raff does provide are somewhat sweeping broadsides against Clovis-First die-hards and their presumed motives. But progress in this field relies on an examination of minute details, not calls to political action or ideological enlightenment. The 14,000-year-old Manis, Washington site, for instance, was identified as evidence of a mastodon-butchery site because of a single bone projectile lodged in a mastodon rib. But when the projectile and the rib were DNA tested, they were found to have originated from the same species of mastodon. And CT scans suggest the possibility that the assumed projectile was actually a sliver of bone that was pushed into the rib’s softer trabecular bone head by a backhoe. It’s difficult to know the truth here, but my point is that these debates swing on a specialist examination of the (often scant) available facts.

Another interesting site dating to roughly the same time, Paisley Caves in Oregon, contains coprolites (fossilized feces) containing human DNA. This is obviously a tantalizing piece of evidence. But any discussion of it is complicated by the fact that the collected samples also contain non-human DNA, such as from dogs, alongside the human DNA. And some have argued that the human DNA found at this site is actually far younger, having leached down from above. There are similar arguments about bioturbation—i.e., the movement of matter caused by animals, including insects and rodents, over millennia—at the nearly 17,000-year-old Cactus Hill, Virginia site. This is the stuff of serious and ongoing argumentation among archaeologists. The details are arcane, and don’t lend themselves to the sort of concise, headline-making declarations preferred by book publishers and Times headline writers.

Raff does provide a detailed discussion of remains from about two dozen individuals that support an early entry into the Americas (around 16,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years). She also highlights the fact that Paleoindians likely comprised a unified migratory group—since remains from the early Paleoindian Spirit Cave in Nevada, dating to around 9,600 years ago, share much DNA with Anzick-1, a 12,600-year-old Montana child skeleton.

But Raff omits some of the more amazing details: An 11,500-year-old Alaskan child was found to have nuclear DNA that could not be matched to any other tested nuclear DNA taken from modern and ancient genomes. The fact that there are human remains, such as this, that correspond to no known living descendant population suggests these peoples were replaced by later Native Americans (as we now know them) coming into their territory, as part of a pattern of displacement and predation that is all too familiar to any student of history. Indigenous groups are sometimes referred to as “first peoples.” But knowing who was “first” is impossible, since modern Indigenous land claims often correspond to areas that are believed to have changed hands in the distant past.

Raff correctly notes that DNA evidence indicates that the first Americans were likely from northern Siberia and East Asia, points of origin that were identified in century-old research performed by Hrdlička and 19th-century anthropologist Earnest Hooton. Yet Raff discounts other DNA evidence that would place Kennewick Man (whose famous remains were found on a bank of the Columbia River in Washington) genetically closer to South American Indigenous populations, a conclusion that sits at odds with the claims of a North American tribe that successfully lobbied for the right to bury Kennewick Man’s remains. It should be said that the provenance of Kennewick Man has been fiercely disputed, and Raff is of course entitled to her opinions. But it is interesting to note how often those opinions line up in orthodox fashion with contemporary progressive political postures.

Where Raff makes bolder attempts to argue for an even earlier human entry into North America—25,000 to 30,000 years ago—she offers no real supporting genetic data, skeletal remains, or artifacts. No Paleoindians are over 13,000 years old, and no pre-Clovis sites date to more than 17,000 years ago. The genetic data does suggest that the gene pool that gave rise to modern Native Americans took form sometime between 43,000 to 25,000 years ago, but that doesn’t tell us where that population lived.

The strongest support for a very early peopling of the Americas comes from White Sands, New Mexico; the site of human footprints described as being 21,000 to 23,000 years old. (This recent discovery is not discussed in depth by Raff, but that is not her fault, as news of the find emerged just as her book was being completed.) Yet there are already questions about those dates. (The issue revolves around the plant used in the radiocarbon dating of the site, a technical subject too complicated to summarize here.) For now, anthropologist Matthew Bennett and his colleagues, the scientists who discovered the footprints, are sticking to their contention that the Americas were peopled far earlier than previously thought. But the debate isn’t over, and more discoveries are likely to come. As always, the most accurate story about our past will emerge from a detailed and objective inspection of the available evidence.

One frustration I have with Origin is that Raff seems to want it both ways. On one hand, she celebrates the wonderful technological advances that have allowed her and others to reconstruct the histories of past peoples. On the other hand, she argues that modern Indigenous tribes should have the right to bury remains of early humans that could yet yield more insights about human prehistory. Many of the individuals and sites Raff discusses were found decades ago, but could only be tested for DNA recently. And even previously-tested remains can yield new clues when tested with more advanced methods.

Some molecular anthropologists have argued, for instance, that since ancient DNA cloned with PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is susceptible to contamination amplification, PCR methods should be replaced with newer techniques such as Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). However, NGS is costly and not yet widely available. In the future, that will likely change, but by then it will be too late: All the Paleoindian results so far have depended on PCR techniques, and with the reburial of many of these remains (a policy that Raff applauds), no materials will remain available to be tested with newer techniques.

One undercurrent in Origin is the idea that scientists speak as individuals, while the modern Indigenous communities that seek to limit their research are best thought of as collectives. She laments, for instance, that “researchers’ consent [protocols] are designed around obtaining individual consent to participate in the study rather than community consent, as is highly important in many Indigenous groups.” But this is a sentimental and somewhat patronizing view: Native Americans, regardless of tribe, are individuals no less than anyone else. And they should not be constrained by group beliefs that, in my experience, are often encouraged and amplified by white activists. The emails I get from Native Americans often are supportive of science because, like many of us, they are curious about our human origins. Some prominent Indigenous leaders have said this publicly—including Jerry Isaac, when he was president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaskan group dedicated to “advancing Tribal self-determination and enhancing regional Native unity.” When the aforementioned remains of an 11,500-year-old Alaskan child were found, he declared that testing the skeleton “is especially important to us since it is in our area, but the discovery is so rare that it is of interest for all humanity.”

Raff’s deferential approach to Indigenous religion and mysticism—including creationist myths—is intended to communicate respect. But this approach leads to serious logical contradictions. At one point, for instance, she criticizes pre-Darwinian American scientist Samuel G. Morton (1799–1851) for his belief in polygenesis—the incorrect view that different human races had different biological origins. Morton was wrong, of course: Darwin and many others have repeatedly shown that we all share a common ancestor. However, Raff doesn’t deal with the awkward fact that some Native American tribes have their own polygenesis beliefs, which tend to be incompatible with the idea of having migrated from the other side of the Bering Strait. This incompatibility was on display, for instance, during the controversy surrounding genetic research among members of the Havasupai tribe in Arizona, who were upset when DNA data collected from donated blood samples was applied to study their genetic history in a way that threatened to contradict their origin myths.

To defer to Indigenous creationist ideas is no different, in principle, from deferring to religious Christian attitudes. In both cases, the approach is completely at odds with the secular values that researchers are expected to apply in every other context. Among activists and ideologically-inclined progressives, Origin’s explicitly politicized message will no doubt strike a chord. But as an anthropologist, I find the anti-scientific trend that the book represents to be deeply unsettling.

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