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Bones: Discovering the First Americans

by Elaine Dewar

Bones: Discovering the First Americans is about beginnings – specifically, the beginning of human habitation in the Americas. The official story says that aboriginal people crossed a land bridge – called “Beringia” – from Siberia to Alaska some 12,000 years ago, making their way down an ice-free corridor to eventually populate the Americas. But archeologists have never produced any conclusive data to support the Bering Strait theory, and evidence has been piling up that shows humans were in South America tens of thousands of years before they supposedly crossed the Strait.

In Bones, Elaine Dewar, a Toronto-based magazine journalist, argues that the Bering Strait theory’s “rickety framework” remains in place because archeology and anthropology are fettered by jealously guarded research, national pride, the need to placate funders, and concern for professional reputations. Those archeologists and geologists – many of them Canadian – who have looked have been ignored or ridiculed if their findings didn’t conform to the official orthodoxy.

This is an important book, because it debunks a scientific orthodoxy that has determined not only how those in the western hemisphere approach their history but also the place aboriginal people occupy within that history. Dewar is a sharp-minded questioner, and she uncovers both the hard science and human folly behind the Bering Strait controversy, especially in regards to the recent discovery of the Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in Washington State that shares few characteristics with modern native Americans.

Dewar also has a novelist’s eye for describing people and places, and she leads readers through a maze of research labs, museums, archeological sites, and universities without a false word or strained link. Combined with her wry asides – “Why … was the assumption of (migration) … always in one direction, from Asia to America and not the reverse? Were there one-way signs up there in Beringia?” – Bones is a delightful read.