September 12, 2004

Thoughts on the Pericu

A few comments on the report that DNA evidence suggests that the Pericú, an extinct tribe of Baja California, are more closely related to "the ancient populations of southern Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific Rim" than to other Native Americans and peoples of the North Pacific Rim.

It is true that this proposal will likely provoke criticism from some Native Americans. Some groups believe that they were created where they are now and consider it offensive to suggest otherwise, and some are concerned that any suggestion that they are themselves immigrants will undermine their claim to their territory. Of course, such groups aren't keen on the Beringian theory either, since it denies that they originated in situ. The idea that there was an earlier migration is worse, though, since it makes them not only immigrants but latecomers. However, there is considerable diversity both of tradition and opinion. Many tribes have no tradition of being created where they are now or even have traditions of migration. And many recognize that prior possession is a perfectly adequate basis for their claims to their territory and that it doesn't matter whether they have been there since the creation.

There is actually another interpretation that should be acceptable to Native Americans who consider themselves autochthonous. They could say that whereas they have always been here, the Pericú were merely the earliest immigrants into the Americas. After all, the DNA evidence itself does not establish that the Pericú were in the Americas before them.

The argument by Johanna Nichols to which Mark referred is based on a survey of typological features of languages, that is, features like "the verb follows its object" or "distinguishes between first person inclusive and exclusive". Such features are not traditionally considered probative of genetic affiliation because there are only a few possibilities, so the probability of two languages sharing them is rather high. Nichols argues that by choosing the features one uses carefully and looking at complexes of features rather than isolated features one can obtain evidence for a historical relationship between languages. She concedes that it isn't possible by this method to distinguish between common descent and diffusion, but suggests that that isn't a fatal flaw, because it is interesting to know who has been in touch with whom, even if we can't tell what the nature of the relationship was. According to Nichols, languages along the Pacific Rim share a number of features that suggest a historical relationship among the languages. This is an interesting idea, but it isn't clear whether or not it really works. Questions have been raised both regarding the validity of the method in general and regarding particular features.

The idea that the Pericú represent an earlier, more southerly migration by boat and/or along the coast to the Americas is quite plausible. For one thing, all of the very early humans found in the Americas seem more closely to resemble Austronesians and Ainu than later American Indians; adistinct migration would explain this. Secondly, it is now I believe conclusively established that the Clovis culture was not the first in the Americas, but it is Clovis that most plausibly reflects the Beringian migration So the pre-Clovis peoples presumably reflect another migration. Thirdly, if everybody came via Beringia, we would expect to find a progression of sites from North to South. We don't. Indeed, there are very early sites, e.g. Monte Verde, in South America. This argument isn't as conclusive as it might be because we don't have an awful lot of early sites, and we can't date them with great precision, so if there were a progression but the movement were rapid we might not be able to resolve it. But if it is right that we don't see the progression we ought to, we have another fact that would be explained by one or ore arrivals on the Pacific coast. Fourth, there is tons of evidence that itis possible to travel by fairly primitive boats between Asia and the Pacific Coast. In addition to planned voyages, there could have been many cases of people being swept to the Americas by storms.

The lack of old sites along the Pacific Coast is not a counterargument to this hypothesis because most of what would have been the coast at the time was submerged at the end of the last ice age. Some archaeologists think that there may be a lot of sites underwater. These sites are presumably much more difficult to discover than, say, Bronze Age sites - it's hard to observe a lithic scatter on the ocean floor.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 12, 2004 01:52 AM