Dissertation on the Origin of the Native Races of America

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I see that the ancients, as well those who have described countries as those who have recorded events, have laid much stress on this point, that they, either from ancient monuments if possible, or, where these were wanting, from traditions or conjecture, have instructed us as to whence the people came who first inhabited certain lands. So Dionysius Halicarnassus, greatly overstepping the diligence of all the Italians, has shown to us, from the monuments of the Greeks, to which he has also added other evidences, the origin of the tribes which first possessed Italy. So Sallust inquires who first settled in Africa; so, also, Tacitus, who in Britain—the former from old traditions, the latter partly from tradition, partly from conjecture, which he based upon a consideration of the language, dress, and customs. In Strabo, a man of great discernment, there are many inquiries of this sort. Such being the case, I have often wondered that no one from among so many learned men of our age has earnestly investigated whence those nations sprung which, before the advent of the Spaniards, inhabited the continent, which, unknown to the ancients, some of us have called America from Vespucius, others Western India, which extends from the Northern Ocean to the Straits of Magellan—a tract very long and broad, indeed—lying between the Atlantic sea and another, which washes China, and is known to some as the Pacific, and to others as of the South. I, since I have read several of the Spanish, French, British, and Dutch writers who have been in those lands, have thought that I would not undertake a fruitless task if I communicated, what appears to me to be most probable, both to persons now living and to posterity, with the intention of stirring up others who may possess a greater knowledge of these events, whether by travel in that quarter of the globe or even by books which have come into their hands, either to confirm my conclusions, or to refute them by valid reasoning. I see that there are many who think that all those tribes were from Scythia—which we now call Great Tartary. They base their argument on this, that at Anianus[1]—be it a strait or a bay (for which of the two it is not clear)—there is no great space between Tartary and America. Now, if it is a gulf the lands must be contiguous, and in that case the passage would be easy; if it is a strait, it becomes more narrow the farther it is entered, and the opposite coasts, just like those of the Hellespont, or of the Bosphorus, in Thrace, forbids navigation even for merchant vessels.[2] These very weighty considerations when regarded, so to speak, on the skin (superficially), wear an aspect of truth, but when viewed from within do not convince me. For it is certain that before the arrival of the Spaniards there were no horses in all America. Now Scythia is a country always full of horses, and almost all the Scythians are accustomed to ride on horseback, and to accomplish immense distances by their aid, and they even suck the blood of their horses when drink of another kind fails. And if America and Tartary were united together, the horses, either in flying or feeding freely, would have long ago forced their way from Tartary into America, just as it is certain, from the narrative of the Spaniards, that from the time they brought horses there they penetrated from some countries of America into others, separated though they were by great mountains. But if a continual strait intervened, as I rather believe, Tartary never had navigators, and if she had had them, never would they have crossed without horses, or been content to remain long without them, any more than the old Gauls who crossed into Britain, or the Spaniards into America. I, as I shall say what approves itself most to me, will first dispose of the peoples of America, those who are towards the north on this side the Isthmus, which is between Nomen Dei[3] and Panama, and those who stretch beyond that strait to the south, until they disappear in the Straits of Magellan. I am of opinion that almost all those tribes who are on this side the Isthmus of Panama are of Norse descent, being led to it by the following considerations. That Iceland was inhabited by Norsemen, the monuments of both peoples, their traditions, language, and the most ancient rule of Norway over the Icelanders clearly show. Now many are believed to have migrated there before the year 1000, when the religion of Norway was still heathen.[4] From Iceland they went into Greenland, which some consider an island, others a part of the continent of America. There, likewise, the language is the same; formerly the government was the same. Frisland is near to it, on which the commentary of the Zenos of Venice exists, unless, perhaps, it is a part of either Iceland or Greenland. Next to this is Estotiland, a part of the American continent, to which fishermen from Frisland resorted two centuries before the Spaniard came into the New World. All these words have the same ending, the sound denoting the country in the language of the Germans, of whom the Norsemen were formerly a part, as appears from Pliny, Tacitus, nay, from the language itself and from their manners. So, also, the lands which stretch from this point to the Isthmus of Panama have names similar in sound, Cimatlan, Coatlan, Guecoslan, Artlan, Quaxutatlan, Zerotlan, Icatlan, Tapatlan, Cinacatlan, Cinantlan, Tenuchititlan, Comillan, Metzitlan, Guatitlan, Necotitlan, Magitlan, Tunoxcaltitlan, Ocotlan, Atilan, Curcatalan, in all which words the pronunciation of the Spaniards has dropped the last letter. The Mexicans and their neighbours, as soon as the Spaniards came there, said that they were not natives, but that their ancestors had come from the north. The district in which they first settled after Estotilandia now, likewise, retains the name of its origin, for it is called Norimbega, which is nothing else than Norway, it being softened in sound by the Spaniards, who are accustomed to place B for VV. And towards California there is a people possessed of the same language and customs with that of Mexico, and there is the people of Alavardus, that is Langobardus. The Spaniards call it New Mexico, when in truth it is Old Mexico, from which they came into the other, as they say, 800 years before. Words are added, many of which were German, that is, Norwegian, but there are few which in their course have come to our knowledge. Teut, the god of Germany, is the same also among those nations, Ba-god, the lesser, an imaginary god; Guaira, Waiert, the lash; Top-hos, the covering of the head; Lame, Lam, the lamb. Places situated beside streams end in Peke, for Beke,[5] which is stream among the Germans. Whoever has a mind to inquire into these things will discover more resemblances. Their customs likewise afford no slight mark of their origin. Their judges are twelve in number, as there were formerly among the Goths and other nations of Scandinavia; and their neighbours, the Saxons, whence the number was introduced into England.[6] They spent their life in hunting, as the Mexicans used to say of their ancestors. The reckoning of time by nights, the washing of newly-born infants in running water, their belief in dice, even to the loss of liberty—all these you will learn from Tacitus and the German writers, were customs of Germany. A man was permitted to have only one wife, with the exception of a few of the nobles, an ordinance which the same Tacitus attributes to the Germans, so that this mark distinguishes them from the other barbarians; since, on the contrary, among the Scythians, from time immemorial, it was usual that a man should have more than one wife. Marriage is permissible to their women, as to the Germans, only once. Posts in Florida have been set up for the ascertainment of the maximum heat, such as Pliny informs us the Cauchi had. From time immemorial they believed that the soul survived the body, a doctrine which Lucan attributed to the tribes which he despises as Arctic. Criminals were severely punished in their persons. You have the same practice also alluded to by Tacitus respecting the Germans, which explains the reference of Quintilian in his speech on behalf of Marianus, the soldier who had murdered the Tribune: “They by the ocean live more sacredly.” There was a chair and a table for every individual by the hearth; sons were the heirs of sisters, their bodies were almost naked, unless where modesty forbids it, and there were other customs similar to those which Tacitus has described regarding the Germans. Now, these having been found in the places of which we are treating, indicate, it is clear, a German, not a Scythian origin.[7] Even to sacrificing men to the Gods is a German custom, upon which as the savageness became more developed, there supervened the practice of feeding upon human flesh. Now, in what I have just said as to these tribes on this side the Isthmus of Panama being almost all of Norwegian origin, I have not spoken in vain. For as to those who possess Yucatan, and some neighbouring districts, the rite of circumcision discovered among them proves to us that they are of a different origin. Many said from this that they had been rescued from the sea, and have for that reason believed that they were Jews, forsooth of the ten tribes driven into Media; that they thence wandered through Tartary into America, by that long road of which reference, they think, is made in the fourth Book, called the Book of Esdra. Although these particulars have been thus piled together, and although they have succeeded in extorting the assent of many, yet they do not approve themselves to me. The writer of the Fourth of Esdra has his head full of vain dreams, and accordingly has been rejected by all. Nor is it America to which he says the Jews went, a land at that time unknown, not less to himself than to all others, but a kingdom which the Jews founded for themselves beyond the Sabbatick stream,[8] as they say, by the Caspian gates, from which no news, no letter ever came; which no one has ever seen, nor ever will see, for it was only discovered by the Rabbinic hair-splitters, that the promises regarding the everlasting continuance of the kingdom in the seed of David, in Jesus Christ, might not be fulfilled, and may be believed to be still unfulfilled. Neither is it true that the Jews were in Tartary. And as to some thinking that they have discovered there the names of the Hebrew tribes, the words are old Scythian, as Euthalitæ, not Nephtalitæ, and so on, as learned men have made abundantly manifest. Now, as regards Yucatan and the regions adjacent, the first settlers hand down that circumcision was devised there, also that the other rites of the Jewish law were not practised, nor that mode of writing letters, which from early times was in use among the Jews. Now, circumcision extends beyond, and is of much wider extent than Judaism; and as to their saying that they are descended from men saved from the sea, you may justly refer that, not to the Red Sea, but to the tradition of the universal Deluge, traces of which are found among all tribes. Consult what we have written on that topic in the Notes to the First Book on the Truth of the Christian Religion. Peter the Martyr has hit the point when he said that he did not doubt but some were conveyed there from Æthiopia by the adjacent ocean, which might easily happen to fishermen sailing a certain distance from their own coast, and then caught by the furious winds, which would carry them directly into America—such a fate as befell that sailor from whom Columbus derived his knowledge of the new world, and those Indians who, Pliny informs us, were borne to the shores of the Suevi. Now, to be circumcised is an old practice of the Æthiopians, as Herodotus, before others, has testified, the reasons for which proceeding we have treated of in the aforesaid treatise. Nor did those of the Æthiopians who became Christians abandon the old practice of their race, as Alvarez and others inform us. By the Æthiopian there is a pronunciation of the letter which answers to the Hebrew ח. But it is not so old as the transplantation of the colony from Æthiopia into those lands, but 500 years old, as they themselves said. Now, the rule of the Abyssinians at that time extended to the ocean. And that the Æthiopians who came there were Christians, we gather from the rite of baptism, which the Yucatans administered to their infants after their third year, like the Greeks and Asiatics, and they called it regeneration; and the parents of the infant, in order to celebrate it duly, made preparation with prayers, fasting, and purification. We are led to the same conclusion by the like celebration in Yucatan of extreme unction, the confession of sins in sickness, honourable burial, and a firm belief in rewards and punishments after this life. Nor, indeed, ought it to appear wonderful that other things appertaining to a Christian should fall into disuse through the lapse of time, the want of priests there, and the negligence of the people, when we see the same thing happen in Dioscoridis, an island of the Red Sea, which they now call Socotra, where those who were there after Paul, the Venetian,[9] could discover nothing left of the Christian religion, of old established there, but baptism and the sign of the cross. Now that the language is neither clearly Æthiopian nor clearly Norwegian, in the range of country from the North to the Isthmus of Panama, I believe, has resulted from the following causes: first, that men of different races were mingled together; secondly, that most of them lived without a common government, after the manner of the Cyclops; it now likewise prevails in Florida, as 600 years before it prevailed in Mexico and other regions, the consequence of which was that individual families framed a vocabulary specially for themselves.

I come now to the other part of America which extends from the Isthmus of Panama to the Straits of Magellan. All who have written of this tract of country agree that the people, in carriage, manners, and language, agree with those who have their settlements beyond that neck of land. Wherefore it is allowable for us to believe that the men on this side are descended from those on the other side of the isthmus, and the more so that the Peruvians have always said that the men ill that part of the world were of foreign extraction. Now, it is credible that the old inhabitants had heard that the part of the world which is across the Straits,[10] and which then stretches through a long tract, composed partly of continuous land and partly of small indenting inlets, under the name of New Guinea, till within view of Gilolus, Java, and other islands of the Indian Ocean, and is all called the Austral Continent in the maps, had received its primitive inhabitants from Java, Gilolus, &c. But the more highly refined minds of the Peruvians, their capacity for just and extended government, testify to another origin, which, if I see anything, can be no other than from the Chinese, a race of equal elegance and equal imperial ability. This is confirmed by the remains of the Chinese ships, which, according to the report of the Spaniards, have been discovered on the shore of the Pacific Sea. Nor is there any cause for wonder if the Chinese, being well versed in navigation, have been induced to penetrate into lands separated from them by a single sea, either by the curiosity of exploring them, or by necessity, the great propagator of the human race. The worship of the sun prevailed among the Peruvians before the arrival of the Spaniards, the same which from time immemorial formed the chief worship among the Chinese. And just as the King of the Chinese says, that he is the child of the sun, so also the Incas of Peru have said that they are the lords of empire. The writing of the Peruvians is not by means of letters, but by marks denoting the things, and it is, as in China, from the top of the paper to the bottom. I am likewise of opinion that Mancacapacus was a Chinese, who, as he was a man of wonderful genius and spirit, learning that men of his own race were in possession of good lands across the sea, but were subject to no common rule, crossed over there, collected them, scattered as they were, into a body, and set up a Government for them and their posterity on the model of the Government of China. Now in that, neither near the isthmus has the language of the Asiatic Indians, nor in the Peruvian country has that of China, continued uncorrupted. This, I think, can be accounted for on the same supposition I have already made for the change of languages on this side the Isthmus of Panama. These are the facts which I have been able to collect, some of them from conjecture, regarding the origin of the American races; and if anyone has more accurate knowledge to communicate, I shall enjoy the advantage of an exchange of thought, and for that advantage will return thanks.

Translator's Notes[edit]

  1. Behring’s Straits, evidently.
  2. This passage seems either obscure or ridiculous.
  3. I cannot trace this place. Can Colon be meant?
  4. An account of the fabulous (?) discovery of America by the Norsemen will be found in vol. iii. of Hakluyt’s voyages, edition 1598 1600.
  5. Beck is still used for a mountain stream in many parts of England.
  6. An allusion, no doubt, to our jury system.
  7. The argument might hold good so far as a common Indo-European origin is concerned.
  8. Query, Oxus.
  9. Better known as Fra Paolo, or Paul Sarpi, the citizen monk of Venice, who has been said to have been a Catholic in general but a Protestant in particular. His attempted assassination on the Piazza of St. Mark at Venice, by order of Paul V., the Pope, is still one of the favourite legends of the City of Gondolas. He is said to have discovered the circulation of the blood. The allusion in the text is from his “Prince,” a work translated and published by the Abbe de Marsy. Paul died in 1623.
  10. The Strait is evidently Grotius’s idea of the Pacific west of South America!