“Unless you are one of the first Americans, unless you are a Native American, you came from someplace else. That’s why we’ve always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants.” ~ President Barack Obama, March 25, 2013
President Obama made the foregoing remarks during a naturalization ceremony at the White House last spring. As per usual, the President was thoughtful and relaxed as he waxed poetic about the nature of citizenship. His point that we are a “nation of immigrants” was especially well said and well taken, though I’m duty-bound to correct the President on one small matter. Like so many of us, the President cites Native Americans as exceptions to the rule that we are all descended from immigrants, but this kind of qualifying rhetoric misrepresents what scientists believe is the truth.
Last week, a team of geneticists led by paleobiologist Eske Willerslev published a report in Nature that sheds considerable light on the earliest human inhabitants of North America. The researchers sequenced DNA from a prehistoric skeleton that had been found alongside Clovis points in western Montana. Their results revealed that the individual (a male) lived in Montana around 12,600 years ago, that his ancestors first immigrated to the Americas from northeast Asia, and that these early immigrants served as the founder population from whence most modern-day Native Americans are descended. The team also insists that their results conclusively refute the Solutrean hypothesis, which holds that humans first immigrated to the Americas from Europe by trekking across the frozen North Atlantic more than 20,000 years ago.
Acknowledging that Native Americans are themselves descended from immigrants in no way undermines their legitimate claims to primacy in the western hemisphere. If anything, it probably reinforces those claims. No less important, however, it also emboldens the idea that we the people of the United States really do constitute a nation of immigrants.
- Morten Rasmussen, et al, “The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana,” Nature 506 (February 13, 2014): 225-229.
- Jennifer A. Raff & Deborah A. Bolnick, “Genetic Roots of the First Americans,” Nature 506 (February 13, 2014): 162-163
- Ker Than, “Oldest Burial Yields DNA Evidence of First Americans,” National Geographic Daily News, February 12, 2014.
- Michael Baltar, “Ancient Infant was Ancestor of Today’s Native Americans,” Science 343 (February 14, 2014): 716-717.
- Ewen Callaway,”Ancient Genome Stirs Ethics Debate,” Nature 506 (February 13, 2014): 142-143.
- “America the Beautiful,” Coca-Cola Commercial during Super Bowl, February 2, 2014.