A study of skulls excavated from the tip of Baja California in Mexico suggests that the first Americans may not have been the ancestors of today's Amerindians, but another people who came from Southeast Asia and the southern Pacific area.
Challenging Clovis In the 1930s, archeologists found stone spear points among the bones of mammoths near Clovis, New Mexico. Radio carbon dating in the 1950s showed that the oldest site was 11,400 years old. The sites were assumed, for years, to be the first evidence of human occupation in the Americas.
But more recent discoveries challenge the Clovis story. In 1996, archeologists in southern Chile found weapons and tools dating back 12,500 years. In Brazil, they found some of the oldest human remains in the Americas, among them a skeleton—named Luzia—that is more than 11,000 years old.
Luzia did not look like American Indians. Instead, her facial features matched most closely with the native Aborigines in Australia. These people date back to about 60,000 years and were themselves descended from the first humans who probably originated in Africa.
The researchers believe Luzia was part of a people, referred to as "Paleoamericans," who migrated into the Americas—possibly even by boat—long before the Mongoloid people. These Paleoamericans may later have been wiped out by or interbred with Mongoloids invading from the north.
The late skulls found in Baja California are similar to Luzia and the Paleoamerican skulls found in South America. Their craniums are characterized by long and narrow vaults, with faces short and low in relation to the neurocranium.
"Skeletal studies demonstrate that skeletal remains do not fit the Mongoloid set of traits that is determinant of the modern Amerindian morphology," said González-José. "Our results demonstrate that not only are some early remains not Mongoloid, but also some modern groups, like those of Baja California."
The study suggests that Baja California was one of many isolated pockets throughout the Americas were Paleoamerican traits survived. The Paleoamericans might have split at one point, with one group going down to Baja California. This group may not have come in contact with Paleoindians for millennia.
The identity of the first Americans is an emotive issue for American Indians, who believe their ancestors were the first to inhabit the Americas.
Controversy erupted after skeletal remains were found in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. This skeleton, estimated to be 9,000 years old, had a long cranium and narrow face—features typical of people from Europe, the Near East or India—rather than the wide cheekbones and rounder skull of an American Indian.
A coalition of Indian tribes, however, said that if Kennewick Man was 9,000 years old, he must be their ancestor, no matter what he looked like. Invoking a U.S. federal law that provides for the return of Native American remains to their living descendants, the tribes demanded a halt to all scientific study and the immediate return of the skeleton for burial in a secret location.
Case settled in 2004. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, provides legal protections for Native American human remains, including their return to tribal communities from museums if the tribes can prove they are related to the remains.
As of April 19, 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jelderks that the remains could NOT be defined as “Native American” under the NAGPRA law. Therefore the Kennewick Man remains are still under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and scientific study of the remains by the plaintiffs was allowed to take place.