Discovering the First Americans


By Elaine Dewar

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Award-winning journalist Elaine Dewar explores new terrain with Bones, uncovering evidence that challenges the conventional wisdom on how the Americas were peopled in early history. In her probing investigation, Dewar travels from Canada’s Mackenzie River to the Brazilian state of Piaui, from the offices of the Smithsonian Institution to the Washington state riverbank where the remains of Kennewick man were found. Dewar captures a tale of hard science and human folly where the high stakes include professional reputations, lucrative grants, fame, and the resting places of wandering spirits.



“With the flair of a mystery writer, Dewar explores the conflicting theories as they are influenced by academic and personal jealousies, government interference, ethnic concern, mishandled artifacts—all the human and bureaucratic folly that have gotten in the way of the science. A revealing and informative look not only at the archaeology in question but at the convoluted, intricate, and very human difficulties in ‘doing science.’”

Library Journal

“Hard, synoptic . . . [Dewar] exposes the rivalries, political agendas, gossip, turf wars, threats, thefts, and outright lies among researchers that still cripple honest investigation of American antiquity.”

— Baltimore Sun

“A well-written and researched book.”


Bones not only pulls together the latest insights into the ancient mysteries clouding the origins of the ‘First Americans,’ [Dewar] does so in clear and lucid prose . . . and adds valuable original thinking. Bones lets you enjoy while you learn.”

—Tony Hillerman, author of Skinwalkers

“Sharp writing and strong reporting make Bones a compelling . . . take on the controversies inspired by the first Americans.”


“Elaine Dewar [has] an excellent eye for hidden stories. . . . A fascinating exploration of the political and academic implications of unburied skeletons and the potential information they contain.”

—Robert McGhee (Curator of Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization), in the Toronto Globe and Mail

“Smoothly written . . . This is all fascinating stuff, and Dewar writes it up with the flair of a good mystery—yet what haunts the reader long after all the new theories have been posited are Dewar’s condemnations of the field of archaeological study.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A compelling account . . . the peopling of the Americas is one of the epic chapters in the human story.”


“Anyone wanting to know the real state of archaeology and anthropology in the Americas needs to read this book. . . . Dewar peels away fallacy, uncovers hypocrisy, points out spurious logic and faulty reasoning. . . .”

Ancient American

“Controversial . . . Dewar’s narrative, written with the zest of a travel account, will intrigue amateur archaeologists and readers interested in American Indians.”




Elaine Dewar


IN THE STUDY OF LITERATURE, much usually depends on direct confrontation with a work. Who would dare to approach A Farewell to Arms by a synopsis? It is only natural to distrust a literary experience if we have been guided too carefully through it, for the act of reading must provide by itself that literary experience upon which our senses will later work.

But the study of science is different. Much like the study of history, it begins with legends and oversimplifications. Then the same ground is revisited, details are added, complexities are engaged, unanswerable questions begin to be posed. A scientific account is a story which can always be retold, for the line of the narrative in scientific writing is to be found in the deepening of the concept.

– NORMAN MAILER, Of a Fire on the Moon


THIS BOOK BEGINS with a simple question. Where did Native Americans come from? I know I was given an answer when I was just a child, before I had learned enough about the world, and enough about how we learn about the world, to even ask the question for myself. This answer was a comfort to immigrants and the children of immigrants as they broke ground, built towns and cities from one end of the hemisphere to the other, and muscled aside the descendants of people who were in the Americas before them. It often popped up before the question could be formed, particularly in those scarce moments of moral hesitation when new immigrants came face to face with those they had displaced, and recognized that Native Americans were suffering and dying even as they, the newcomers, prospered. For more than a century this answer was ready for anyone who needed it: Native Americans came from somewhere else—from Asia. All are descendants of the same immigrant people.

I was born in the middle of the twentieth century on the Great Plains—in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I am the grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived there when it was still a frontier called the Northwest Territories. The government of Canada promised free land if my grandparents would go to the Prairies and bust the sod. And so they left the wars and racism and religious hatreds of Russia and Romania, migrating halfway around the globe to the New World. They helped to colonize the beautiful and frigid prairies. Their first homes were sod houses, built of thick squares of turf they cut out of the ground. They were known as pioneers, as if no one had ever been there before them.

If they had regrets about being part of a process that ended the ancient and complex relationship between Native peoples and their lands, I never heard them discuss it. By the time I came along, they were city folk with their own businesses (although my mother’s father held fast to his northern farm for many years, not letting go even after his tractor fell on him, when he was eighty-five). Native people had been pushed so far to the margins of society that my contact with them came mainly at fairs and parades and multicultural festivals where ethnics of all sorts came forward, in costume, to sing their foreign songs and dance their foreign dances. We were all immigrants together in the New World and therefore in my mind we were equivalent: we came from Eastern Europe, they came from Asia. I did the hora, they had their powwows, their drums and their fancy dancing. We came on boats and built the railroads. Exactly how they came was a matter to be determined by science because they had no written histories, just stories about their origins, encased in languages that no one but the old people spoke anymore. Governments and church schools tried to wipe those languages away because they interfered with the process of making Native Americans just like everybody else. If the Native peoples were unhappy about that we didn’t hear of it. (How could they complain? Status Indians in Canada only got the right to vote in 1960.) It was up to science to dig up the Truth—and teach it to them.

As I grew older, as the wail of Native songs and the beat of Native drums became as familiar to me as the whine of the bagpipes and the thump of a tambour, as I acquired bits and pieces of Native clothing in my wardrobe, the stock answer to my simple question morphed from a single word (“Asia”) into a complex story, rich with significant detail. Native Americans originated in northern Asia; they did not even represent their own particular category of the Races of Man as I had once been taught, they were just another Mongoloid people, like the Chinese or the Japanese except less culturally developed. (Well, yes, it was acknowledged that there had been great urban civilizations in Mexico and Central America and Peru, but weren’t they fairly recent and anyway, hadn’t they crumbled under the onslaught of European civilization?) The issue of when they came was tied to the issue of how they came. The first of these Mongoloid people came to the Americas over the Bering Strait, we were told, at the end of the last ice age. They migrated across the land bridge up there, just before it disappeared under rising oceans, and made their way down into the continent through what was called the “Ice-Free Corridor”—those areas of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan where the two great ice sheets that covered Canada at the height of the glaciation had never met. And how did they get here? They walked.

I know I rebelled briefly when this story was first revealed to me. It was on a class trip to Regina, where we were introduced to the newly built provincial Museum of Natural History. There was a diorama at the museum with representations of the first human beings in Saskatchewan. It was set up to look like a kind of cave or shelter. The Paleo-Indians, a man and a woman dressed in raggedy furs, their arms and legs bare, stood with their backs to the cave hearth and looked out on a broad, dreary plain. They were dark, their hair gross and black and their foreheads low and rugged, as if to signify that while these were people, they weren’t really like us, they were a primitive version of us. The world outside their cave was terrifying, populated by gigantic buffalo and great prowling cats. These primitives had somehow made their way from the top of the world to southern Saskatchewan, carving out an existence with nothing to help them but some great stone spear points tied to heavy sticks.

Oh sure, I thought, with their arms bare like that they’d have lasted about ten minutes in a January blizzard, and where on the Prairies would they have found a cave?

I didn’t think this diorama could be right, but its images stuck with me anyway. I stashed them in that niche in my mind where admiration and fascination had begun to grow: these people had lived a free life, a different life from mine. Some part of these images must surely have come from evidence provided by science, or it would never have been shown to the public in a museum. The story also had a certain power. It intrigued me almost as much as the stories I was reading about ancient Greece and Rome. It echoed what I saw on television westerns, stories about dangerous and devilish or noble Native Americans. One could imagine that these were Tonto’s larger-than-life ancestors, who had fought their way across Arctic wastes, mountain glaciers, and frigid Prairies, killing gigantic Ice Age animals like saber-toothed tigers as they went. This voyage made my grandparents’ trek from Eastern Europe seem small by comparison. Their way had been smoothed, after all, by European technologies. My father’s father was a blacksmith who helped build the Grand Trunk Railway and who, before he was done with life, built as a hobby Saskatoon’s first electric car. I used to ride around in it in parades. The disciplined control of metallurgy, electricity, nuclear power, science defined us: tenacity, brute strength, stoicism defined them.

This answer was complex enough to shape and frame and limit my questions for many years. It never occurred to me that it had been steeped in the dark, bitter tea of racism. I accepted it before I understood the first thing about how frames of reference create the vector of inquiry. I forgot there was a question.

The process of making this book began when the question returned—many years after I first learned these answers. I had long since left Saskatchewan and taken up my adult life in Toronto. I had become a journalist, a person who pokes into things for a living, sorting and sifting and trying to make patterns out of various phenomena. I had been battle-tested in the course of various investigations: I had learned well how one can be trapped by a question, hobbled in one’s understanding of another’s circumstance by unnoticed assumptions. I had a lifelong interest in archaeology, but had never written about it—there just never seemed to be a story I needed to tell, or an editor who wanted to hear it, and besides, who had ever heard anything of interest about the less-than-monu-mental archaeology of Southern Ontario? But I had travelled widely and done a book on Brazilian Native Americans and their impact on North American environmentalists, so I knew enough of the anthropological literature from South America to be deeply interested in the prehistory of the Americas. I had followed the debate on climate change and knew something of what scientists were discovering about how the last ice age ended. Little by little, and following one trail after another, I had gathered up the pieces of a puzzle without really understanding that there was one, until one morning in my garden I found a very odd, very large bone.

In the process of poking into things, I had left behind the awe I once felt for the authority of scientists. I had learned that scientific investigation is a very human enterprise. Science is a method of inquiry, it is also a framework to hang queries and answers on, it is as mutable as any substance at the right temperature and pressure, and it is carried out by men and women who make mistakes. They are motivated by the same demons and dreams that goad the rest of us. There is good science and bad, just as there is good journalism, bad fiction, wretched law. Good scientists ask nice, tight questions that produce precise predictions, which can then be tested and disproved. Poor scientists pile inference on inference and create amorphous theories that may arouse interest and attract money, but in the end merely confuse. Great scientists intuit and test their way to a framework unimagined before, and they always make a good story.

Many, many stories opened up for me as I pursued this question: where did Native Americans come from? I read widely and traveled far. I became uncomfortably familiar with the remains of the dead, and the fears of the living. I went from Fort McMurray in northern Alberta to the arid plains of the Brazilian state of Piaui, from skull-and-bones-lined offices in the Smithsonian Institution to the basement lab of an archaeologist in Washington State who wondered if the FBI was going to come for him. I spent too many hours in airplanes, jounced over back roads from Minas Gerais to Nevada, slept on too many buses across North America. I learned that archaeological science and physical anthropology were invented by adventurers digging for treasure in ancient graves. The current practitioners are fractious and litigious. They are hampered in their outlook by their acceptance of authority, by national boundaries, by possessiveness about finds, by conservative gatekeepers who control the flow of research money, by their fear of stepping one inch beyond their expertise onto someone else’s turf, and by the organized outrage of Native Americans. They are enlivened by new physical, geological, biological and genetic technologies and computer models, which are teaching them undreamed of things about the human journey. Everywhere, these practitioners are growing more specialized, and as they do so, less able to read one another’s work and make use of it.

So why, you might ask, should a journalist investigate a question that has bedeviled scientists for 150 years? Journalists are willing to go anywhere, to be passionate fools, to ask innocent questions, to ignore barriers, to look for patterns that connect disciplines and solitudes, and to have no vested interest in anybody’s intellectual capital. Science must be public and transparent or it loses all meaning, and journalists bring evidence out of the lab and spread it before the general public. Journalists are the last of the generalists. We are also a little like bees. We dip into everybody’s business and carry the news along. We cross-pollinate. We fertilize. Sometimes, we sting.

The experience of researching this book has stripped me of many answers. I learned how the old belief about the path used by the First Americans to enter the continent has been disproved. In the place of answers, I learned new questions about who we are, how we are made, why we change, and the impact our communities have on each one of us. Those of you who read this account will find yourselves asking questions I have not thought of, but here are some I know you will ask. What if Native Americans are right in their belief that they have always been in the Americas and did not migrate to the New World at the end of the Ice Age? What if the New World’s human story is as long and complicated as that of the Old? What if the New World and the Old World have always been one?

The new answers will be found where we should have looked first—in ancient parables, in the damp old earth, and written in the bones of our departed elders—if we have the wit and the courage to read them.

Part One

T  he hand of the lord was upon me, and the Lord m carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones; and He caused me to pass by them round about, and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And He said unto me: “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered: “O Lord God, Thou knowest.” Then He said unto me: “Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them: Oye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thussaith the Lord God unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I beheld, and, lo, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them. Then said He unto me, “Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: Thus saith the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.“ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host. Then He said unto me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, 0 My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, 0 My people. And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land; and ye shall know that I the Lord have spoken, and performed it, saith the Lord.”

– EZEKIEL 37: 1–14


Asian Origins?

Clovis First Across the Bering Strait

ONE SATURDAY MORNING in the Spring of 1995 I was out in front of my house, grovelling in the dirt, trying to wrench beauty and order out of nothing. Moving this bush, cutting out that hunk of sod, I sliced my hands on coal clinkers and broken glass, pieces of sharp pottery and bits of metal. The earth belched up an old bone near the roots of the forsythia. It was dark, dank, redolent of mildew and rot and it rolled lasciviously among the lilies of the valley. Human or animal? It was very large, very heavy. Its ends had been cut neatly, and they were smooth, as if they’d been polished. No one would do that to a human bone. It must be animal, but what kind of animal had bones so dense? I tossed it toward the porch. It landed in a hill of mouldy leaves and vanished from sight, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was odd to find such a large bone in the middle of a city garden, odder still that it had been worked like that.

The recognition that I had no knowledge of the prehistory of where I live, no idea who was here before me, came up out of the ground with the bone. I live in a First World War-era house on a quiet street at the top of a high ridge that runs across the center of Toronto. Davenport Road follows its curve down below: I’d read the heritage plaque near the bus stop down the hill that said this ridge was once the beach of Glacial Lake Iroquois, and the road had once been a major Native trail. That was all I knew.

As the maple trees unfurled their acid-green leaves from their hairy pouches, the bone reappeared, as if to say “Remember me?” I buried it deep, and deeper still. But with each grunt over my spade, there it was again, like a reproof. Eventually I asked around among the neighbors. Had anyone found anything like it? I learned that a mastodon or mammoth’s bone, a relic of the first warming at the end of the Ice Age, had been found straight down the hill from my house.1 Maybe my bone was a piece of some ancient Ice Age animal. But someone had cut it, someone had polished its ends. So when, I wondered, did men and women get to Southern Ontario? One Native treaty discussed on the front pages of the newspapers said that these particular Native people had been in their homeland “since time immemorial.”2 But this obviously had a limit, defined by the glacial ice.

The former Native trail below the hill runs out toward the Niagara Escarpment, a huge limestone spine connecting the western edge of Lake Ontario and the eastern lobe of Lake Huron. I had become interested in that escarpment, which bore on its cliff faces long-lived trees that were a biological record of past shifts in temperature. When I wasn’t sweating over my garden, I was working on a project about climate change.3 What evidence is there that man is actually changing the climate of the planet? How can science separate the signature of the hand of man from natural processes? What caused the last ice age to start and stop? Surely the earth had its own powerful rhythms independent of human behavior?

These questions led me to experts on the ebb and flow of climates past, who told me about the many ice ages that have occurred over millions of years—the ice age state has long been the dominant climate pattern for the planet. Each period of glaciation has lasted up to 100,000 years: warm periods, such as the one we are now enjoying, have been brief interregnums of about ten to fifteen thousand years’ duration. These fluctuations between warmth and ice are like an extremely long form of sea-sonality, possibly brought on by eccentricities in the earth’s orbit and spin. As in all things related to climate, no ice age has been exactly like any other. The last one was the worst. The Lauren-tide ice sheet, which formed on the northeast side of North America, waxed and waned repeatedly (as did the Cordilleran ice sheet over the Rocky Mountains) but just before the last ice age came to an end, the Laurentide sheet stretched farther than the ice ever had before. There was a carapace about two kilometers thick all the way from the high Arctic to New York City, from east of Newfoundland to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. When it melted away, about 12,000 years ago, it left behind a flattened-out landscape covered by vast, ice-dammed lakes. Utterly empty, ice-scourged and ground up, Southern Ontario was rapidly colonized by insects, grasses, trees, mammoths, mastodons, horses, giant bison and caribou. Then, within a short span of time, these Ice Age animals all vanished. The landscape has been reshaping itself ever since, climbing higher in a process known as isostatic rebound.4 These changes at the end of the Pleistocene (as the last cool period was called) were sudden. Ice cores taken from the Greenland glaciers, which never melted through millions of years of climate fluctuation, showed that temperatures rose sharply, then fell, then rose steeply again, and that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated very quickly too.5 No one knows why.

I visited a biologist, Doug Larson, who reads the patterns of climate change in the growth rings of the ancient trees cloaking the escarpment’s face. What about people? I asked him. What does the archaeological record show? When did people first come to Southern Ontario, the very center of the North American continent? Larson sent me to Dr. William Finlayson, then the director of the London Museum of Archaeology.

Finlayson laid out the chronology of culture change.6


On Sale
Jul 21, 2004
Page Count
640 pages
Basic Books

Elaine Dewar

About the Author

Elaine Dewar is an award-winning investigative journalist whose beats include culture, international politics, science, business, and the environment. Reviewing Bones, historian Peter C. Newman has called Dewar “the Rachel Carson of Canada,” whose work “is aimed always at expanding mental horizons . . . This is a must read.” Dewar lives in Toronto.

Learn more about this author