Unhealthy Obsession with the "First Americans"

Just yesterday I saw National Geographic's current magazine cover at a grocery store checkstand.


There's nothing particularly offensive or disturbing about the cover—or the story in the magazine, I'm sure. (I didn't read it.) Still, I couldn't help but think that this is yet another example of a weird American phenomenon: We are obsessed with finding out who came to the Americas first, when they did it, and how.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I've gotten the feeling over the past few years that Americans (and Canadians too, probably) are far more invested in archaeological finds related to the first people to arrive where they live now than people anywhere else on earth. Non-academic non-archaeologist Americans seriously argue about whether the Bering Land Bridge theory is legitimate or not, or whether people arrived in the Americas 10,000, 15,000, or 20,000 years ago.

Does any other society today have an equivalent? Is there controversy in China concerning the genetic background of the first people in the Yangtze River Valley? Do South Africans lose sleep wondering when humans first made it to the Cape of Good Hope? Do Germans dread the notion that other people might have passed through their lands before their ancestors arrived? My guess is no.

Of course, this phenomenon—if it really is one—must have everything to do with the last 300 years, and not the past several millennia. It has everything to do with the fact that the United States and Canada are settler societies—the most massive and the most "successful" settler societies on earth. After annihilating and marginalizing indigenous peoples, these settler societies then developed a compromise with the survivors: They could maintain identities as "sovereign" nations (given lip service as such, but not treated as such), but only while belonging to the settler nation as well, and only because they were here "first".

What does that do to a person's thinking if society says their legal rights and cultural identity need to be predicated on facts about their long-ago ancestors? I'm not saying Native peoples shouldn't feel proud of their ancestors and connect with them in as many ways as possible; of course they should. I'm just saying Natives spend way too much time talking about their ancestors to settlers, and settlers spend too much time asking.

It's not just white people who get weird ideas about this, either.
There's even been a recent upswing in the idea that the very first Americans (tens of millennia ago) came across the Atlantic from Europe—the Solutrean hypothesis. While the progenitors of the idea may claim it's based solely on their quest for truth and beliefs about the archaeological evidence, it shouldn't need mentioning that white supremacists love the Solutrean idea. America belongs to white people after all!

All the while, white archaeologists fight back and forth over results of DNA samples taken from Natives and ancient artifacts and remains taken from their ancestors. Overall, it's a pretty sad state of affairs, all concerned with this question of the "first Americans." In the end, the answer isn't even that relevant to the history of North America, let alone our lives today.

There's not much I can do about all this except write about it, and make a resolution as a history teacher: I promise to never fixate on the "first Americans" in my classroom.

It's still an interesting question, sure, and archaeologists should keep exploring it—hopefully in the most respectful and responsible ways possible. But do teachers expound on the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe before they discuss the Roman Empire? Do students need to learn about paleolithic China before they study Qin Shi Huangdi? Hell no. Teachers, let's focus more on the importance of indigenous history in the last two thousand years—and especially the last few hundred—before contributing any more to an unhealthy obsession.

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