Where Did Native Americans Come From? — A Comprehensive History

It has often been said that the mysteries of Native American origins are, at best, enigmatic. To this day, Native Americans and their rich culture remain shrouded in mystery, their pasts and heritage hidden in a range of mysterious stories and the unknown. It’s often a source of intense interest from anthropologists and, historically, the general public alike.

However, while much of Native American history remains unknown, some pieces of the puzzle have been put together thanks to research and scientific evidence. Here, we look at what is known about the history of Native American peoples and the theories surrounding where they originally came from.

A Brief Overview of Native American History

The term ‘Native American’ is generally used to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas — specifically of North America. This includes people from a range of tribes, bands, and ethnic groups including the Cherokee, Seminole, Cree, Pawnee, and Apache, among many others.

Native American cultures flourished for centuries before the arrival of Europeans to the continent in the late 1400s. When explorers like Christopher Columbus arrived, Native Americans were spread across the continent — from the edge of what’s now known as the Rocky Mountains, to the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River.

Theories on Native American Origins

Due to the lack of written records from most ancient Native American peoples, the history of Native American peoples is often pieced together using evidence gathered from archaeological sites, analyses of Native languages and linguistics, and comparative genetic evidence. As such, there is no single, definitive answer for the origins of Native American peoples. Rather, a range of theories have been offered as to where Native American peoples could have originated from.

The So-Called Bering Land Bridge Theory

The theory that is most widely accepted among anthropologists and researchers is the Bering land bridge theory. Put simply, this theory suggests that Native Americans originally came from East Asia, crossing what’s now known as the Bering Strait, at least 12 -15 thousand years ago.

At that time, sea levels were drastically lower due to glacial buildup, meaning that in one area, the land bridge between Asia and North America (the current Bering Strait) was exposed and passable. This allowed for early hunter-gatherers and migrating peoples to cross it — as evidenced by archaeological and genetic evidence of early migrants from Asia. It’s thought that some of these ancient migrants eventually made their way throughout the length and breadth of the continent — thus giving us the origination of a people that went on to become known as the Native Americans.

The PyeongChang Theory

The PyeongChang theory is an interesting alternative to the Bering land bridge theory that suggests that the first Native Americans were not from East Asia, but rather, that North America was populated by South Asians instead.

The theory relies on evidence that suggests that some Native American cultures’ DNA is more closely related to Oceanian and Australasian peoples than East Asian counterparts. This suggests that at some point, certain Mande or Australo-Melanesian speakers may have sailed across the Pacific and populated the Americas, followed by substantial East Asian migrations much later.

The Solutrean Hypothesis

The Solutreian Hypothesis is another somewhat unconventional theory with regards to the origins of Native Americans. This theory suggests that Native Americans were descendants of European migrations across the Atlantic Ocean, and that a range of cultures from Europe ended up in the Great Lakes region of the US — as evidenced by archaeological sites in the region — thus contributing to the origins of Native American peoples.

The only problem with this theory is that there’s no significant evidence to support it. Despite claims that there are similarities between artifacts found at some archaeological sites in both Europe and the Great Lakes region, many anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scholars dispute the theory, finding that it relies on unsupported and unsubstantial claims.

Of the theories that have been offered regarding the origins of Native American peoples, the Bering land bridge theory remains the most credible and widely accepted, supported by archaeological and genetic evidence. It’s possible that, even with this theory accepted, there are still aspects of Native American heritage and history that remain mysterious, and that we may never know the full story of who these peoples were and how they originated. Yet DNA, archaeological, and linguistic evidence give us a deeper insight into their past, and offers us a hint of the mystery that is part and parcel of Native American origins.