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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T37


Relationships between North-West
America and North-East Asia 11

Relation of American Rage to Old World Rages

The relation of the American race to the races of the Old World
is one of the important problems of anthropology. It involves the
question of the origin of the American race, of the cultural status of
the earliest American, and of the later relations between America and
the Old World.

The present status of palæontological knowledge leaves us no doubt
that the American race cannot have originated on this continent. No
indications have been found of any form that could be considered an
immediate predecessor of man, no form that could have been the immediate
ancestor of anthropoid apes. The gaps that yawn between
man and lower forms are infinitely wider in America than in the Old
World. There is nothing in America that corresponds to the various
anthropoids, to Pithecanthropus, to the Mauer, or to the Neandertal
race. The origin of man must be looked for in the Old World.

The physical relationship of the American native to the east Asiatic
is closer than that to any other race. Straight, dark hair; wide, rather
flat face; heavy nose; tendency to a Mongoloid eye are common to
both of them. Locally, types are found that are so much alike that it
would be rather difficult to say whether an individual is an Asiatic or
an American.

The American race has marked local varieties. In the wide stretch
extending from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego a considerable
number of local types may be distinguished. The hair is sometimes not
straight, but wavy; in a few localities lighter colors occur, as for
instance in northern British Columbia; the iris is not always dark brown,
but may show lighter shades. The skin color varies around a medium
yellowish tinge from very light to very dark. The nose is in some regions
very prominent and broad, in others narrow and elevated, in still
344others rather flat and broad, like similar Asiatic forms. The prominence
of the cheek-bones, one of the most persistent characteristics of
the east Asiatic race, is always present, in some regions excessive, in
others so moderate that the face recalls east European forms. As among
the east Asiatics the body hair is almost always scanty; here and there a
little fuller, but probably never as full as that of the European. The
American race appears most closely affiliated with the large group that
includes the peoples of the Malay Archipelago, and of the whole of
eastern and central Asia, but excludes the Negroid and Australoid types
which occur in the southern part of that area.

While we are not in a position to state definitely at what time the
Mongoloid race was specialized we may assume that this occurred some
time during the middle-Quaternary.

The early-Quaternary remains of Europe do not suggest the presence
of a Mongoloid type on that continent. The only European specimen
that has been claimed to be of an American-like type is the Chancelade
skull of the Magdalenian period which Testut considered as analogous
to the modern Eskimo. Other investigators assign it to the regular Cro-Magnon

At the period of the Pleistocene, connection between America and
the Old World across the Atlantic was broken. During the Tertiary,
when a possible connection existed, the Mongoloid race certainly did
not exist. The immigrant ancestors of the modern Indian must, therefore,
have come to America from the Pacific side. There are no indications,
so far, of any pre-Indian non-Mongoloid race existing on our

The same arguments must be brought forward against the theory of
Mendes Correa, who suggests an immigration of Tertiary man from
Australia by way of the Antarctic to South America.

Admitting this, the question arises, how did man come to America?
If we assume a very early period for his immigration he may have been
without means of navigation, and Bering Strait, notwithstanding its
narrowness, would have been an impossible barrier. It is more than
likely that the configuration of Bering Sea has undergone considerable
changes during and since the Quaternary period. Collins has found
evidence of changes of shore-line during the habitation of the coast by
the Eskimo, and ample geological evidence of raised shore-lines is available.
It is not so easy to demonstrate subsidence, because the old shorelines
are submerged, but the configuration of the coast-line with its
345numerous inlets and small bays, is characteristic of recent submergence.
The whole of Bering Sea is shallow and it is plausible, considering the
evidence of changes of level, that at one time or several times, there may
have been land connections between Asia and America. It is necessary
to assume such connection on account of the migration of large land
mammals from Siberia to America or vice versa.

Immigration across the Pacific Ocean would compel us to assume
that it occurred at a time when navigation was highly developed. Since
the settling of the islands of the South Pacific must be an event of
recent times, it would mean that man came to America at a very late
period, a theory contradicted by the conservative time limits of about
7000 years set for the oldest remains found so far in North America.

Since the theory of a direct relation between America and Melanesia
has recently been advocated by a number of investigators, it seems well
to state that, in my opinion, no valid proof has been given. It seems
quite conceivable that in later times Polynesian or even Melanesian
canoes may have strayed to the coast of South America, even that a
few cultural achievements may have found their way to our continent;
but this is not equivalent to deriving the whole Indian race or part of
it from this source.

The attempts made by de Quatrefages, ten Kate, Rivet, Søren Hansen,
Sergi, Sullivan, and Hellman, who emphasize the similarity of the
type of Lagoa-Santa and related forms in South and Central America
to those of Australians and Melanesians, are worthy of attention but do
not carry the conviction of any genetic relation. I am not as ready as
Hrdlička to deny the existence of certain analogies, but I hesitate to
accept them as proof of a genetic affiliation, except in so far as I consider
a very remote relation between the European and Mongoloid, perhaps
also the Australian races as conceivable.

Still less convincing are the attempts to prove a relation between
Melanesia, Australia, and America by means of linguistic evidence. We
might say that the defenders of this theory prove too much. It is not
possible to conceive of a recent close contact between the speakers
of these languages, and still we are asked to accept as proof of relationship
close similarities of sound and meaning selected from a wide range
of languages. Without a reconstruction of the history of words, without
the proof of definite phonetic shifts, such attempts are vain, and I do
not believe that a single identification of American languages and languages
of the west Pacific will hold good.

Most of the ethnological parallels that have been adduced as proving
346relations between America and the western islands of the Pacific Ocean
may be considered as possibly due to dissemination. It should, however,
be recognized that all of them consist of minor aspects of cultural life.
Imbelloni has dwelt on the striking similarities of certain Polynesian
and American clubs; the featherwork of South America and that of
Polynesia shows similarities. Most significant seems von Hornbostel's
discovery of the sameness of the absolute pitch of South American and
East Asiatic musical instruments. His observations are based on a few
specimens only, and it remains to be seen whether the examination of a
larger number of instruments will corroborate his results.

Opposed to these observations are a number of fundamental differences
between the cultures of America and of the Old World. Indian
corn, beans, and squashes are the basis of North and South American
agriculture; manioc and potato, yam, beans, and chile pepper of eastern
South America have no early parallels in the Old World, and none
of the cultivated plants of the Old World like wheat, barley, and millet
have found their way here. 12 Nor have any of the domesticated animals
347been carried to the New World. At a previous time I have pointed out
a number of other traits that set off American cultural life fundamentally
from Old World life. All this makes it justifiable to say that if
there has been any ethnic influence of Oceania upon the New World
it has never had an important influence upon American life, and whatever
it has been, it can have occurred only in recent times after the
invention and perfection of navigation. An ancient immigration in the
south seems very unlikely, if not impossible.

We infer from all this that our principal problem relates to the question
of the time of the migration of man to the American Continent by
way of the region now occupied by Bering Sea and Bering Strait.

The final answer to this question must be based on the geological age
of human remains found in America. Search for these has continued
for a long time, but we are not yet in a position to state definitely the
period to which the oldest remains belong. It is a question of geological
age, not of cultural type, with which we are concerned, for it is not
admissible to assume that the types of implements belonging to a certain
geological period must have been the same all over the world.

So far as I can judge we have no finds in America that with absolute
certainty can be ascribed to the Quaternary. We have conclusive evidence
that man lived on our continent at a time when a number of
animals, now extinct, still roamed over the country. The finds at Folsom
and Gypsum Cave are the most conclusive evidence of this kind.
The remains of Folsom prove that man used beautifully shaped stone
weapons in hunting the extinct bison; those of Gypsum Cave show that
man was contemporaneous with the extinct ground sloth. The state of
preservation of the sloth remains shows also that the time elapsed since
the extinction of the animals cannot be very long. The finds of cave
habitations on Promontory Point in Utah may also be significant, because
they seem to indicate that man lived in them at a time when Lake
Bonneville was much larger than its present remains. Further studies
of these sites may give us a clearer insight. The only safe statement that
can be made at the present time is that we have no incontestable evidence
of man's presence in America before the close of the Ice Age, let
us say 10,000 years ago.

From a theoretical point of view it seems difficult to accept this as a
final judgment. If man came to America by way of what is now Bering
Sea, he travelled from the extreme northern climate through the Tropics
to the extreme south. Even admitting climatic changes during this
348period the physical and cultural acclimatization required time. [According
to recent archaeological investigations in Tierra del Fuego human
remains of the region date back at least 3000 years, probably more. 13]
The present Indian race, notwithstanding its fundamental unity, represents
many decidedly distinct local types. Even in North America the
Eskimo, north-west coast, Mississippi valley, California types — to mention
only a few — are each quite well characterized. We must assume
that either these types were differentiated within the short period available,
or that a number of distinct types, one after another, came to our

The same difficulty presents itself in regard to American languages.
These are so different among themselves that it seems doubtful whether
the period of 10,000 years is sufficient for their differentiation. The
assumption of many waves of immigrants who represented many types
and many languages is an arbitrary solution of the dilemma.

All we can say, therefore, is that the search for early remains must
continue. If ultimately nothing should be found that indicates a greater
age of man on our continent, we shall have to make sure whether it is
possible to assume many waves of migration, or whether we have to
revise our opinions in regard to the stability of types and of fundamental
grammatical forms.

At the time of his first arrival in America man must have had a certain
number of cultural achievements. Prehistoric archaeology proves
that the art of making chipped stone implements had advanced considerably
and that the use of fire was known. The use of clothing,
ornaments, and the custom of burial also prevailed. It seems reasonable
to suppose that these were brought to America. We may also infer
that the dog, if not domesticated, at least followed man in his

What else man had can be discovered only by an analysis of the basic
elements of American cultural forms, in so far as they are common
to the whole continent, and by a comparison of these with fundamental
traits of Old World culture.

Such reconstruction involves many difficulties, for what is common
to the two Americas may be due as well to diffusion as to antiquity.
Furthermore the most generalized traits of culture may have developed
349independently in most areas. For these reasons I do not believe that we
can discover much that is necessarily ancient beyond what is found by
archaeological research.

In order to utilize cultural forms for establishing their antiquity it
would be necessary to prove their stability. Certain motor habits; in a
sense, language; general mental attitudes may be stable over long

I have pointed out repeatedly that American culture is set off by
many traits from that of the Old World. I may repeat some of their
fundamental differences: agriculture in most parts of America based
on Indian corn, beans, and squashes; lack of wheat, barley, millet, and
rice; lack of the domesticated animals used in the Old World except
the dog and, locally, turkey and llama, and lack of their use for agricultural
purposes; the narrow localization and late use of bronze; weakness
of executive organs in political structure combined with the absence
of judicial procedure, except in Mexico and the Andean plateaus; the
lack of the use of evidence, the oath, and the ordeal for judicial purposes
; the weakness of the belief in the evil eye and in obsession (if such
existed at all in the strict sense of the word); the almost complete absence
of the riddle and proverb in native literature, and the rarity of
the use of decorative designs for protective purposes. In addition to all
this we must consider that the cultivation of Indian corn must have
originated in Mexico, because the ancestral wild plant belongs to that
area, so that American agriculture based on Indian corn must have
developed independently.

These American traits are overlaid by others due to modern contact,
which may be divided into two groups. The one contains the features
common to the circumpolar area of the Old and New Worlds; the other
consists of traits which extend farther to the south.

Circumpolar Culture Traits

The characteristics of the circumpolar culture are only in part explained
by the similarity of geographical environment. The climate
does not permit agriculture, and all the people rely essentially upon
animal food — fish, sea-mammals, and land animals. The domestication
of the dog is well-nigh universal. It is, however, characteristic of the
circumpolar region alone that the dog is used as a draft animal. It is not
unlikely that the dog cart which has been used up to the present in
northern Europe is a survival of this use of the dog. In Asia and Arctic
350America the dog is used as a draft animal in connection with a sledge.
In America its use has spread southward from the Arctic region, but
the Indian tribes of the plains use it in a peculiar manner. Instead of
the sledge or toboggan, they use a frame resting on two poles which
are tied to each side of the dog and are dragged over the. ground. This
contrivance, the so-called travois, was used both in summer and winter.

Another characteristic trait of the circumpolar region is the use of
birch bark for making vessels and canoes and for building houses. The
Indian birch-bark wigwam is well known. The construction of the
Siberian tent is, in principle, the same. A framework of poles is erected
and covered over with sheets of birch-bark. The bark canoes are also
of similar structure.

It might be said that the use of skins and bark for covering framework
is dictated by the availability of these materials, but this point of view
is hardly tenable when we consider also the similarity of the birch-bark
vessels which are used on both continents. Baskets and vessels of various
kinds are formed by cutting and folding birch-bark in appropriate ways,
and many of the ideas of treatment are practically identical. The
strengthening of the rim and the decoration of the sides are characteristic
for Siberia and for America, but they do not seem to occur in other
parts of the world.

Common to Siberia and America also is the characteristic flat drum
consisting of a hoop covered by a single head, sometimes with a handle
consisting of crossed thongs or wire or similar material. In practically
all other regions where drums with a single head occur, the shell is high,
as, for instance, in the large drums of Africa. The only other form
similar to the American and Siberian drum is the tambourine, which
seems to be confined to the Mediterranean and to southern Asia. The
tambourine, however, is much smaller and is characterized by the additional

I do not feel convinced that the use of tailored fur clothing and the
methods of fishing can be added as a proof of ancient, historical relationship,
because they are dependent upon climatic and geographic
conditions. Still an inhospitable climate does not produce adequately
protective clothing, as is shown by the scanty covering of the north-west
coast and of Tierra del Fuego.

Another feature common to the north-western part of America and
to Asia is the use of slat armor, consisting of cuirasses and other protective
devices made of rods or slats, of wood, bone, or ivory, securely
351lashed together. If this type of armor should have developed from
Chinese and Japanese patterns it would be proof of long-continued
cultural influence that extended northward and south-eastward. Of
similar character is the use of the sinew-backed bow which is widely
used in the Old World and occurs in an extensive area of north-west

Similarities in religious ceremonials, beliefs, and traditions prove an
intimate relation between Asia and America. Recently Dr. Hallowell
has published a detailed study of the bear ceremonial in the Old and
New Worlds and proved its wide distribution over the whole extent
of the circumpolar area and the adjoining districts farther to the south.
It is hardly admissible to assume that the cult of the bear has developed
independently all over this country on account of the fear inspired by
this animal, for form and content are too much alike. At the same time
these particular ceremonials are not found in regard to other dangerous

Attention might also be called to the peculiar use of wood-shavings,
grasses, and shredded bark as religious symbols which characterize the
ceremonials of the Ainu, Koryak, Chukchee, and of the coast tribes of
British Columbia and southern Alaska.

It is not unlikely that some of these traits have spread far to the south,
even to South America. Ehrenreich's comparisons of North and South
American mythologies suggest a number of similar traits that are presumably
due to transfer, and among these are typical Asiatic traits.

It seems important to point out how rapidly details of culture may be
grafted upon foreign cultures even when there is no direct contact between
the carrier of the new cultural trait and those who adopt it.
Proof of this is, for instance, the spread of tobacco and Indian corn almost
all over the world. In America Spanish and Negro customs and
ideas have influenced distant native tribes. The occurrence of the musical
bow in California can hardly be an independent invention, since no
stringed instruments were known in aboriginal America. The picture
writing of the Cuna and the invention of syllabic writing are also cases in
point. Still more interesting is the complete assimilation of a number of
European or African tales which reached this continent only a few
hundred years ago. I will not refer to the innumerable rabbit tales
which are found even in the remotest parts of South America, for these
are not in any way assimilated. More interesting is the tale of the ascent
of the tree, fully treated by Dr. Parsons, which in most cases is thoroughly
352integrated in the mythology of the Indians; or the tale of the
turtle's war party which ends with the well-known trick of Bre'r Rabbit
who, when captured, begs his enemies not to kill him by throwing him
into the briar bushes, the place where he always lives. Rapidity of
integration is also illustrated by the various religious movements that
originated among the Indians.

Considering these phenomena the modern transfer of cultural elements
from Siberia to America does not seem surprising, and does not
necessitate the assumption of very great antiquity of this connection.

Languages of Siberia and America

Finally we have to discuss the problem of a possible genetic relationship
between the languages of Siberia and of America. The answer to
this problem depends upon a number of fundamental theoretical questions.
As stated before, the languages of America that cannot be safely
reduced to common origins are very numerous. The attempts that have
been made to combine them into a very few related stocks are dictated
rather by the wish to unify them than by satisfactory evidence. There
are a number of languages that are split up into divergent dialects and
that are spoken over extended territories, such as Athapascan, Algonquian,
Shoshone, Siouan, Caribbean, Arawak. Others are confined to
very small territories and are spoken by small communities. In North
America such regions are found on the Pacific coast and in Texas;
farther south all through Central America; in South America in the
Andean region. It has often been claimed that such diversity of languages
in restricted areas is a condition due to the extinction of earlier
forms of speech spoken in wider contiguous areas. This view is based
on observations in Europe, where we see the Basque gradually retreating
before French and Spanish, languages of the Lithuanian groups giving
way to German, Polish, and Russian; and Finnish-speaking tribes
adopting Russian. I believe the essential point to be observed is that all
languages which have a wide distribution now-a-days have attained it
in, anthropologically speaking, recent times. Indo-European, Turkish,
Chinese, Bantu, Malayo-Polynesian, Algonquian, Athapascan, Carib,
Arawak, can be proved or inferred to have extended their territories not
so very long ago. The assumption that single, widely-spread languages
occurred in the regions now occupied by them cannot be proved. There
is rather evidence that many different languages have been superseded
by them. The ancient conditions in Asia Minor and in Italy certainly
353indicate such a development. Whether this occurred also in Africa and
America must be decided by a more detailed study of native languages.
The general history of languages shows that many forms of speech have
disappeared, generally distinct, as far as we can see, from those surviving.
There is no reason to believe that this is a new process. We are,
therefore, led to the conclusion that in early times each language was
spoken in a restricted territory and that the multiplicity of languages
which we find at present on the Pacific coast of America, in Siberia, in
the Caucasus, and in the Sudan was at one time characteristic of the
whole world.

If this view is correct we may see in the whole area in which Palæ-Asiatic
languages are spoken, together with western America, a district
in which very ancient conditions survive. The Turkish and Tungus
languages which have superseded the ancient Siberian languages do not
belong to this group.

It may be asked whether there is any indication that the Palae-Asiatic
languages are related to American languages more closely than
other languages of the Old World. So far as genetic relationship is
concerned no proof has been given that any one of the Palae-Asiatic
languages and any American language are derived from the same stock.

American languages differ among themselves so fundamentally that
a common characteristic cannot be given. They have been called polysynthetic
and incorporating, but by no means are these characteristic of
all American languages, and similar forms occur outside of America.

The classification of experience which is the foundation of linguistic
expression does not follow the same principles in all American languages.
On the contrary, many different forms are found. The content
of nouns and of verbs depends upon cultural conditions. What for a
people of temperate zone is simply “ice,” has many shades of meaning
for an Arctic people like the Eskimo, “salt water ice, fresh water ice,
drifting ice, ice several years old.” Terms of relationship and those
relating to social structure vary in their contents; classifications occur
such as animate and inanimate; long, flat, or round; female and non-female.
In verbs modalities of action, forms of object acting or acted
upon, or local ideas may be expressed. In short, the variety of linguistic
content is very great.

So are the linguistic processes. Prefixing, suffixing, stem modification,
stem expansion, vocalic harmony are found in endless variation.

For this reason it would be difficult to find a language that might not
354fit into the American scheme. Especially the Siberian languages possess
many traits that are found in American languages and which structurally
might just as well be American as not. However, this might be
claimed for the agglutinating languages too, for their fundamental processes
are repeated in fairly parallel form in Eskimo, except that Eskimo
does not use vocalic harmony in the word unit. Other American languages
have laws of vocalic harmony, such as Sahaptin (Nez Percé)
and partly Chinook.

An early unity of Palæ-Asiatic and American languages has not been
established. In fact the two languages which at present are nearest
neighbors, Chukchee and Eskimo, differ fundamentally in structure,
vocabulary, and phonetic principles. It is interesting to note that, notwithstanding
their fundamental differences, there is a similarity in the
mode of analyzing experience. In other words, the ideas expressed by
linguistic devices are somewhat alike, although the methods of expression
are quite different. “Cases” of the noun, the multitude of demonstrative
pronouns, and modes of the verb express quite similar ideas. The
different treatment of transitive and intransitive verbs follows the same
pattern. These similarities are so striking, particularly on account of
their absence outside of the Aleut-Eskimo-Chukchee-Koryak-Kamchadal
territory, that we must assume a common cause.

It would seem most likely that this must be looked for in a later
mutual morphological influence which molded structural forms to
such an extent that the psychological structures of the languages acquired
to a certain degree a common type.

It is possible that in the intercourse between neighboring tribes, this
process may have occurred often, and that it may account for many
curious similarities of structure. This type of cultural contact between
Siberia and America would also not demand great antiquity.355

11 The American Aborigines, Their Origin and Antiquity, edited by Diamond
Jenness (University of Toronto Press, 1933).

21 Imbelloni, in a paper published in the Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen
Gesellschaft, Wien
, vol. 58 (1928) p. 301, claims that a number of American cultivated
plants were introduced from the Old World. Professor E. D. Merrill,
director of the New York Botanical Garden, had the kindness to answer as follows
to my inquiry: “Batatas edulis (Ipomoea batatas) is absolutely a native of tropical
America and was introduced into Old World tropics and into Europe after the
discovery of America by Columbus; there is, however, some evidence that this,
the sweet potato, may have reached some parts of Polynesia in pre-Columbian
times. The genus Dioscorea is pan-tropic in distribution, but there are no species
common to the tropics of both hemispheres. Some of the Old World species yield
edible tubers, and the same is true of some of the American species. There is no
evidence whatever that any Old World species reached America, or vice versa,
before Magellan's voyage. Certainly, the more important Old World species, particularly
Dioscorea alata, were introduced into America from the Old World tropics
after Magellan's voyage.

There are no edible Aroideae common to the two hemispheres, and I have
never seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that any of the few cultivated
species had reached both hemispheres before the time of Columbus. The
important one in the Old World is the Taro (Colocasia), and while this was widely
distributed in the Indo-Malayan region and throughout Polynesia at an early
date, there is no evidence for considering that it reached America until some time
after 1520. The important American representatives of this family are several
species of Xanthosoma, but these were all confined to America until very recent
times. Within the past century some of the species have been introduced into the
Old World tropics.

Apparently a single representative of the Cucurbitaceae, the common gourd
(Lagendaria), attained pan-tropic distribution long before the time of Columbus;
but whether this was actually introduced by man, or whether it was naturally
distributed, is a problem that I cannot answer. The plant is, of course, a relatively
unimportant one from the standpoint of food production.

Spondias dulcis is Polynesian, with two varieties credited to Mexico and South
America. I am not at all sure that they are correctly named. I suspect confusion
here with the indigenous American S. lutea;”

31 Junius Bird, “Antiquity and Migrations of the Early Inhabitants of Patagonia,”
The Geographical Review, vol. 28 (1938), pp. 250-275. Later addition to the
original essay.