Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 2 - Man in America

It was necessary to form some idea, if only in outline,
of the magnitude and extent of the great geological
changes of which we have just spoken, in order to judge
properly the question of the antiquity and origin of man
in America.

When the Europeans came to this continent at the end of
the fifteenth century they found it already inhabited by
races of men very different from themselves. These people,
whom they took to calling 'Indians,' were spread out,
though very thinly, from one end of the continent to the
other. Who were these nations, and how was their presence
to be accounted for?

To the first discoverers of America, or rather to the
discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
(Columbus and his successors), the origin of the Indians
presented no difficulty. To them America was supposed to
be simply an outlying part of Eastern Asia, which had
been known by repute and by tradition for centuries past.
Finding, therefore, the tropical islands of the Caribbean
sea with a climate and plants and animals such as they
imagined those of Asia and the Indian ocean to be, and
inhabited by men of dusky colour and strange speech, they
naturally thought the place to be part of Asia, or the
Indies. The name 'Indians,' given to the aborigines of
North America, records for us this historical

But a new view became necessary after Balboa had crossed
the isthmus of Panama and looked out upon the endless
waters of the Pacific, and after Magellan and his Spanish
comrades had sailed round the foot of the continent, and
then pressed on across the Pacific to the real Indies.
It was now clear that America was a different region from
Asia. Even then the old error died hard. Long after the
Europeans realized that, at the south, America and Asia
were separated by a great sea, they imagined that these
continents were joined together at the north. The European
ideas of distance and of the form of the globe were still
confused and inexact. A party of early explorers in
Virginia carried a letter of introduction with them from
the King of England to the Khan of Tartary: they expected
to find him at the head waters of the Chickahominy.
Jacques Cartier, nearly half a century after Columbus,
was expecting that the Gulf of St Lawrence would open
out into a passage leading to China. But after the
discovery of the North Pacific ocean and Bering Strait
the idea that America was part of Asia, that the natives
were 'Indians' in the old sense, was seen to be absurd.
It was clear that America was, in a large sense, an
island, an island cut off from every other continent. It
then became necessary to find some explanation for the
seemingly isolated position of a portion of mankind
separated from their fellows by boundless oceans.

The earlier theories were certainly naive enough. Since
no known human agency could have transported the Indians
across the Atlantic or the Pacific, their presence in
America was accounted for by certain of the old writers
as a particular work of the devil. Thus Cotton Mather,
the famous Puritan clergyman of early New England,
maintained in all seriousness that the devil had inveigled
the Indians to America to get them 'beyond the tinkle of
the gospel bells.' Others thought that they were a
washed-up remnant of the great flood. Roger Williams,
the founder of Rhode Island, wrote: 'From Adam and Noah
that they spring, it is granted on all hands.' Even more
fantastic views were advanced. As late as in 1828 a London
clergyman wrote a book which he called 'A View of the
American Indians,' which was intended to 'show them to
be the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel.'

Even when such ideas as these were set aside, historians
endeavoured to find evidence, or at least probability,
of a migration of the Indians from the known continents
across one or the other of the oceans. It must be admitted
that, even if we supposed the form and extent of the
continents to have been always the same as they are now,
such a migration would have been entirely possible. It
is quite likely that under the influence of exceptional
weather--winds blowing week after week from the same
point of the compass--even a primitive craft of prehistoric
times might have been driven across the Atlantic or the
Pacific, and might have landed its occupants still alive
and well on the shores of America. To prove this we need
only remember that history records many such voyages. It
has often happened that Japanese junks have been blown
clear across the Pacific. In 1833 a ship of this sort
was driven in a great storm from Japan to the shores of
the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British
Columbia. In the same way a fishing smack from Formosa,
which lies off the east coast of China, was once carried
in safety across the ocean to the Sandwich Islands.
Similar long voyages have been made by the natives of
the South Seas against their will, under the influence
of strong and continuous winds, and in craft no better
than their open canoes. Captain Beechey of the Royal Navy
relates that in one of his voyages in the Pacific he
picked up a canoe filled with natives from Tahiti who
had been driven by a gale of westerly wind six hundred
miles from their own island. It has happened, too, from
time to time, since the discovery of America, that ships
have been forcibly carried all the way across the Atlantic.
A glance at the map of the world shows us that the eastern
coast of Brazil juts out into the South Atlantic so far
that it is only fifteen hundred miles distant from the
similar projection of Africa towards the west. The
direction of the trade winds in the South Atlantic is
such that it has often been the practice of sailing
vessels bound from England to South Africa to run clear
across the ocean on a long stretch till within sight of
the coast of Brazil before turning towards the Cape of
Good Hope. All, however, that we can deduce from accidental
voyages, like that of the Spaniard, Alvarez de Cabral,
across the ocean is that even if there had been no other
way for mankind to reach America they could have landed
there by ship from the Old World. In such a case, of
course, the coming of man to the American continent would
have been an extremely recent event in the long history
of the world. It could not have occurred until mankind
had progressed far enough to make vessels, or at least
boats of a simple kind.

But there is evidence that man had appeared on the earth
long before the shaping of the continents had taken place.
Both in Europe and America the buried traces of primitive
man are vast in antiquity, and carry us much further back
in time than the final changes of earth and ocean which
made the continents as they are; and, when we remember
this, it is easy to see how mankind could have passed
from Asia or Europe to America. The connection of the
land surface of the globe was different in early times
from what it is to-day. Even still, Siberia and Alaska
are separated only by the narrow Bering Strait. From the
shore of Asia the continent of North America is plainly
visible; the islands which lie in and below the strait
still look like stepping-stones from continent to continent.
And, apart from this, it may well have been that farther
south, where now is the Pacific ocean, there was formerly
direct land connection between Southern Asia and South
America. The continuous chain of islands that runs from
the New Hebrides across the South Pacific to within two
thousand four hundred miles of the coast of Chile is
perhaps the remains of a sunken continent. In the most
easterly of these, Easter Island, have been found ruined
temples and remains of great earthworks on a scale so
vast that to believe them the work of a small community
of islanders is difficult. The fact that they bear some
resemblance to the buildings and works of the ancient
inhabitants of Chile and Peru has suggested that perhaps
South America was once merely a part of a great Pacific
continent. Or again, turning to the other side of the
continent, it may be argued with some show of evidence
that America and Africa were once connected by land, and
that a sunken continent is to be traced between Brazil
and the Guinea coast.

Nevertheless, it appears to be impossible to say whether
or not an early branch of the human race ever 'migrated'
to America. Conceivably the race may have originated
there. Some authorities suppose that the evolution of
mankind occurred at the same time and in the same fashion
in two or more distinct quarters of the globe. Others
again think that mankind evolved and spread over the
surface of the world just as did the various kinds of
plants and animals. Of course, the higher endowment of
men enabled them to move with greater ease from place to
place than could beings of lesser faculties. Most writers
of to-day, however, consider this unlikely, and think it
more probable that man originated first in some one
region, and spread from it throughout the earth. But
where this region was, they cannot tell. We always think
of the races of Europe as having come westward from some
original home in Asia. This is, of course, perfectly
true, since nearly all the peoples of Europe can be traced
by descent from the original stock of the Aryan family,
which certainly made such a migration. But we know also
that races of men were dwelling in Europe ages before
the Aryan migration. What particular part of the globe
was the first home of mankind is a question on which we
can only speculate.

Of one thing we may be certain. If there was a migration,
there must have been long ages of separation between
mankind in America and mankind in the Old World; otherwise
we should still find some trace of kinship in language
which would join the natives of America to the great
racial families of Europe, Asia, and Africa. But not the
slightest vestige of such kinship has yet been found.
Everybody knows in a general way how the prehistoric
relationships among the peoples of Europe and Asia are
still to be seen in the languages of to-day. The French
and Italian languages are so alike that, if we did not
know it already, we could easily guess for them a common
origin. We speak of these languages, along with others,
as Romance languages, to show that they are derived from
Latin, in contrast with the closely related tongues of
the English, Dutch, and German peoples, which came from
another common stock, the Teutonic. But even the Teutonic
and the Romance languages are not entirely different.
The similarity in both groups of old root words, like
the numbers from one to ten, point again to a common
origin still more remote. In this way we may trace a
whole family of languages, and with it a kinship of
descent, from Hindustan to Ireland. Similarly, another
great group of tongues--Arabic, Hebrew, etc.--shows a
branch of the human family spread out from Palestine and
Egypt to Morocco.

Now when we come to inquire into the languages of the
American Indians for evidence of their relationship to
other peoples we are struck with this fact: we cannot
connect the languages of America with those of any other
part of the world. This is a very notable circumstance.
The languages of Europe and Asia are, as it were, dovetailed
together, and run far and wide into Africa. From Asia
eastward, through the Malay tongues, a connection may be
traced even with the speech of the Maori of New Zealand,
and with that of the remotest islanders of the Pacific.
But similar attempts to connect American languages with
the outside world break down. There are found in North
America, from the Arctic to Mexico, some fifty-five groups
of languages still existing or recently extinct. Throughout
these we may trace the same affinities and relationships
that run through the languages of Europe and Asia. We
can also easily connect the speech of the natives of
North America with that of natives of Central and of
South America. Even if we had not the similarities of
physical appearance, of tribal customs, and of general
manners to argue from, we should be able to say with
certainty that the various families of American Indians
all belonged to one race. The Eskimos of Northern Canada
are not Indians, and are perhaps an exception; it is
possible that a connection may be traced between them
and the prehistoric cave-men of Northern Europe. But the
Indians belong to one great race, and show no connection
in language or customs with the outside world. They belong
to the American continent, it has been said, as strictly
as its opossums and its armadillos, its maize and its
golden rod, or any other of its aboriginal animals and

But, here again, we must not conclude too much from the
fact that the languages of America have no relation to
those of Europe and Asia. This does not show that men
originated separately on this continent. For even in
Europe and Asia, where no one supposes that different
races sprung from wholly separate beginnings, we find
languages isolated in the same way. The speech of the
Basques in the Pyrenees has nothing in common with the
European families of languages.

We may, however, regard the natives of America as an
aboriginal race, if any portion of mankind can be viewed
as such. So far as we know, they are not an offshoot, or
a migration, from any people of what is called the Old
World, although they are, like the people of the other
continents, the descendants of a primitive human stock.

We may turn to geology to find how long mankind has lived
on this continent. In a number of places in North and
South America are found traces of human beings and their
work so old that in comparison the beginning of the
world's written history becomes a thing of yesterday.
Perhaps there were men in Canada long before the shores
of its lakes had assumed their present form; long before
nature had begun to hollow out the great gorge of the
Niagara river or to lay down the outline of the present
Lake Ontario. Let us look at some of the notable evidence
in respect to the age of man in America. In Nicaragua,
in Central America, the imprints of human feet have been
found, deeply buried over twenty feet below the present
surface of the soil, under repeated deposits of volcanic
rock. These impressions must have been made in soft muddy
soil which was then covered by some geological convulsion
occurring long ages ago. Even more striking discoveries
have been made along the Pacific coast of South America.
Near the mouth of the Esmeraldas river in Ecuador, over
a stretch of some sixty miles, the surface soil of the
coast covers a bed of marine clay. This clay is about
eight feet thick. Underneath it is a stratum of sand and
loam such as might once have itself been surface soil.
In this lower bed there are found rude implements of
stone, ornaments made of gold, and bits of broken pottery.
Again, if we turn to the northern part of the continent
we find remains of the same kind, chipped implements of
stone and broken fragments of quartz buried in the drift
of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys. These have
sometimes been found lying beside or under the bones of
elephants and animals unknown in North America since the
period of the Great Ice. Not many years ago, some men
engaged in digging a well on a hillside that was once
part of the beach of Lake Ontario, came across the remains
of a primitive hearth buried under the accumulated soil.
From its situation we can only conclude that the men who
set together the stones of the hearth, and lighted on it
their fires, did so when the vast wall of the northern
glacier was only beginning to retreat, and long before
the gorge of Niagara had begun to be furrowed out of the

Many things point to the conclusion that there were men
in North and South America during the remote changes of
the Great Ice Age. But how far the antiquity of man on
this continent reaches back into the preceding ages we
cannot say.

Stephen Leacock

Sorry, no summary available yet.