Reframing Columbus Day

Recently some fascinating research has come to light positing a link between peoples of the Athabaskan family of American Indians (e.g. Navajo, Apache, Tlingit) and Central Asian refugees of Genghis Khan's conquests. The connection, based on physical, cultural and religious similarities as well as linguistic and genetic evidence, has been proposed for decades but is only now being verified by concrete evidence. 

The implications of such a realization are staggering—but no more than those of other recent discoveries challenging our conceptions of the early Americas.

For Columbus Day it is appropriate to note a few convulsions in the established historical record that highlight the fact that the "era of Columbus" is now over. It has already been established that Columbus was not the first to discover America, and the illusion that the Americas existed in a bubble of cultural isolation is being shattered with every new finding of global interchange. But beyond that, it is time to observe this ideological regime change by questioning whether Columbus is really so important after all—and what that means in the context of America's colonial and imperialist legacy.

Norse colonies and the first Native American in Europe

The presence of Scandinavians in North America before Columbus is well established. At present they lay title to being the first Europeans to set foot on American soil. But one of the major revelations of the past year was the evidence of the earliest Native Americans in a European country—not as chattel transported via the English and Spanish slave trades, or even as diplomatic attaches to European monarchs—but as part of the saga of Norse exploration along the Atlantic seaboard.

The ill-fated Norse colony of L'anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, dating to the 11th century, may have shared less than ideal relations with their Beothuk neighbors, according to extant records, but their association may have been closer than those records indicate. It remained for DNA science to reveal that many present-day Icelanders carry the genes of Newfoundland's extinct indigenous populations, indicating that this Norse emigration was, at least on one occasion, a two-way street. This discovery marks a milestone in our understanding of early European involvement in North America and raises numerous questions about the nature and extent of the interaction between these groups.

Polynesian trade with the Pacific Coast

There is a growing body of evidence that Polynesian sailors reached the Americas long before the 15th century, setting up an exchange that left clues on both sides of the Pacific. The Polynesians are an optimal candidate in the search for pre-Columbian contact, because they had both the technology and the motive to reach the Americas.

The prime evidence:

Chickens: Ancient remains of chickens found on the coast of Chile predate the arrival of domesticated breeds introduced by European colonists. There were no chickens indigenous to the Americas; they are native to Southeast Asia where they were first domesticated and later brought as far east as the Pacific islands. Obviously their presence in Chile could not be explained as a simple case of migratory spread. The carbon dating of the chicken bones gave them a tentative age of 600 years, right around the peak of the Polynesian's Pacific expansion.

Sweet potatoes: As part of the Columbian Exchange, many of the New World's important native food crops—including maize, potatoes and cacao—were transported to Europe, Asia and Africa where they became fundamental commodities. One of these crops, the sweet potato, has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years by peoples in Central and South America, where it first originated. Apart from direct human introduction, it is difficult to account for sweet potato cultivation by the Polynesians dating back more than a millennia. (Sweet potatoes propagate through tubers or plant cuttings, not by seeds that can be windblown or spread by birds.) It is even more difficult to explain how they came to be called by almost identical names in both regions.

There are even deeper connections on the horizon. Many researchers point to linguistic similarities and parallels in artifacts found in the Polynesia Pacific (including Easter Island) and in America's Pacific coast cultures. Such suggestions of an information and technology exchange may be circumstantial at best. But there is considerable support rising from other fronts, not the least of which is recent DNA research confirming the exchange of much more than just trade goods.

Tibetan origins of Athabaskans

Historians and scientists have long understood that the genetic origins of most Native Americans lie in Central Asia, where they lived before crossing into the Americas sometime during the last Ice Age, and where their nearest living relatives can be found today. There are already observable parallels in language and culture that demonstrate this link. But in the case of the Athabaskan peoples (a linguistic group encompassing an extended range from Alaska to the Southwest) a much later entrance onto the historical stage supports a more recent connection.

The spread of Athabaskans—in particular the Navajo and Apache—is documented by archaeology and by the ancient records of Pueblo peoples who witnessed their arrival to the region around 1400. They were originally warlike migratory peoples seen by others as outsiders. While this alone does not prove a recent origin beyond the Americas, the striking congruities between Athabaskan and Yeniseian languages pose important questions first asked by scholars as early as the 1800s. Why would one ethnic branch of Native Americans have such a well-preserved connection to an ancestral Asian tongue?

The research into this area has since evolved far beyond linguistic analysis to include technologies such as modern genetics and physical anthropology that further corroborate the recent timeline, and have helped to hone in on a more exact point of origin. The evidence points towards a conglomerate of Central Asian peoples in what is today Tibet who absconded from the region under the scourge of Genghis Khan's Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The examination of Native oral accounts describing an exodus from a dangerous world, and an exhaustive comparison of ceremonial/ritual practices, all bear this out in astonishing clarity.

Reexamining history

While controversial, these scenarios are rapidly gaining credence within the academic community and among Native leaders and scholars eager to reexamine their respective cultures' roles on the broader stage of global history. It is interesting that these studies are so unfamiliar to the general public, and are rarely or never mentioned among the ranks of "fringe theories" about seafaring Egyptians, wandering Celts, marauding Templars or even Atlanteans. And it is also hard to believe that old misconceptions about the exploration of the Americas should die so hard in the face of so much information, when the reality is potentially much more incredible than we could have imagined.

These theories raise provocative questions about both Native and non-Native perceptions of Indian identity, and about the role of colonialism in shaping the history of the Americas. If they were not always isolated, as previously thought, and carried on as lively and extensive an interchange with other cultures as new evidence leads us to believe, then was the high cost of European settlement—and the subsequent cultural dominance it has taken for granted—really so inevitable? What transpired in these other contacts that set them so much apart? Or in what ways were they more similar than we suppose? As time is quick to remind us, history is not always black and white.

What an irony that in the wake of a massive cultural genocide, where lost ways of life and endangered languages define much of the discussion of America's indigenous peoples, we are on the threshold of such breakthroughs unveiling the staggering complexity of America's culturally dynamic past. A continuous stream of new discoveries is steadily demolishing the old view of pre-Columbian America at every turn. This paints a new landscape of astonishingly complex and advanced infrastructures, economies and methods of land management.

The prospect of a profound interchange of shared knowledge and experience with other cultures—beyond the confines of colonial exploitation—does more than enrich our understanding of history and challenge prevailing concepts of pre-colonial America. It offers the vision of a new gateway of communication between modern Native Americans and cultures beyond the borders of the Americas, many of whom have far more in common than the shared experience of a colonial past.

The native peoples of the New World are not a subcategory of American or Western culture—a relic, frozen in time, leftover from the story of European colonialism. They are, as they have always been, a living part of the spectrum of the human family. It could never be said that it was Columbus who played the role of introducing the Americas to the world. If we can take away anything new from this Columbus Day, perhaps it should be that there is no longer any reason to continue seeing America from the point of view of Columbus. It is time we can all start looking at our world from a wider, more complete perspective.

Jessica Crabtree is a freelance artist and blogger living in the United States. Her journal discusses issues of American Indians in history, art and the media: