What happened to the early Americans? New research is turning evolutionary narratives upside down—and creation scientists like geneticist Nathaniel Jeanson are leading the way.
Thousands of years ago in the bitterly cold north that separates the Americas from Asia, a group of Central Asians crossed the Bering Strait to an uninhabited wilderness. Stone Age in their technology, these early Americans lived in isolation, cut off from technological advances in the rest of the world. Primitive yet resourceful, these small bands learned to respect their environment, taming the wilds without destroying them and living in harmony with nature.
When Columbus arrived in the Americas in AD 1492, the multi-millennial divide was finally bridged. But the bridge was more of a one-way street. Europeans disrupted the ancient way of life, overran the territories of the Native Americans, and eventually confined the Native Americans to reservations.
What happened to the early Americans? They’re still here. In one sense, the history of the Natives is, well, boring. Except that much of the history I described above has turned out to be wrong.
To be sure, from a mainstream evolutionary perspective, it’s easy to be lulled into accepting such stories without questioning them. We’ve all been conditioned, consciously and subconsciously, to assume that the path of world history always follows a simple-to-complex trajectory. But the emerging history of the Americas is turning such commonplace evolutionary narratives upside down.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned about Native American (Indian) history only as it related to the newly arrived Europeans. In school, we talked about the Indian tribes that European settlers encountered as they moved from east to west. I was taught about the Iroquois and their longhouses in the eastern woodlands. We discussed the buffalo-dependent, migratory lifestyles of the Sioux and other tribes of the Great Plains. We touched on the sedentary ways of the Navajos and peoples of the Southwest. But the discussion was almost entirely static.
The only action in these stories involved encounters between settlers moving west and Native Americans that had been there for, well, time immemorial, I presumed. I knew nothing about the pre-Columbian Americas. It remained a puzzle until I moved to Texas in 2009.
Because my parents still called Wisconsin home, they would take trips to visit me. We’d do the usual site-seeing things in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, including visit historical Texas sites like the Fort Worth Stockyards. For me, the most memorable part was not the monuments to past cowboy life. It was a map in one of the many gift shops.
The map stood high on a wall and showed the area of the United States before Europeans moved through. The whole map was full, replete with individual Native American domains bumped up one against another—just like European kingdoms had been for centuries.
Here, finally, was a handle—my first grip on the mystery of the pre-Columbian world. European history was familiar. European kingdoms were bunched together because they reflected a long sequence of political and migratory events. Surely the pre-Columbian world also reflected a long sequence of political and migratory events. I didn’t know what those events were. But I finally had a framework in which to understand whatever else I might discover.
While in Texas, I came across a book on the most prominent Native American tribe in Texas—the Comanches. Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne, was a riveting read. But what struck me most was not the violent back and forth between the settlers and the Comanches. It was an almost throw-away sentence at the beginning of the book.
Gwynne described the backstory to the settler-Indian conflict by narrating the pre-settler history of the Comanches. “They came from the high country, in the place we now call Wyoming, above the headwaters of the Arkansas River.”1 This sentence was the first pre-European action that I had encountered, my first insights into the black box of the pre-Columbian world. Here, finally, was something dynamic.
Since moving from Texas to Kentucky, I’ve discovered a clue as to why Comanche history traces to the Rockies. It’s their language. The Rockies were the home of the Shoshone people. The Shoshone and Comanche languages belong to the same language family—Uto-Aztecan.
The latter half of that language family name probably rings a bell. On the eve of European arrival in the AD 1500s, the Aztecs were the most powerful confederation in Central America. They spoke Nahuatl. Nahuatl is also part of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which means that the tribes in what is now the US were linked to peoples south of the Rio Grande. The pre-Columbian world was much more dynamic than I had been taught. Once I moved to Kentucky, I learned why. Again, the discovery was more accidental than deliberate.
I live in a town of around 20,000 people.2 Despite its small size, it has an excellent library. In browsing the history section one day, I came across a book titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. The author, Charles Mann, was a science writer with an impressive pedigree. But it was his personal backstory that hooked me. He recalled:
My interest in the peoples who walked the Americas before Columbus only snapped into anything resembling focus in the fall of 1992. By chance one Sunday afternoon I came across a display in a college library of the special Columbian quincentenary issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Curious, I picked up the journal, sank into an armchair, and began to read an article by William Denevan, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin. The article opened with the question, “What was the New World like at the time of Columbus?” . . . I finished Denevan’s article and went on to others and didn’t stop reading until the librarian flicked the lights to signify closing time.
A year or two after I read Denevan’s article, I attended a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Called something like “New Perspectives on the Amazon,” the session featured William Balée of Tulane University . . . Gee, someone ought to put all this stuff together, I thought. It would make a fascinating book.
I kept waiting for that book to appear. The wait grew more frustrating when my son entered school and was taught the same things I had been taught, beliefs I knew had long been sharply questioned. Since nobody else appeared to be writing the book, I finally decided to try it myself. Besides, I was curious to learn more. The book  is the result.
 is not a systematic, chronological account of the Western Hemisphere’s cultural and social development before 1492. Such a book, its scope vast in space and time, could not be written—by the time the author approached the end, new findings would have been made and the beginning would be outdated.3
This was why I had learned so little about the pre-Columbian Americas. There’s so much more than meets the eye, and it’s changing too quickly for educators to keep up with.
These changes involve more than filling in a blank historical slate with new information. The revolution in pre-Columbian history is also changing our perspectives on previously documented events—ones that Americans (like myself) have taken for granted.
In 1876, the US was recovering from the Civil War and pushing its boundaries west. To provide safe passage for settlers and fortune-seekers, the US Army was rounding up Indians and consigning them to reservations. On June 25, 1876, the 7th US Cavalry fought and lost a now infamous battle.
This lithograph by Charles Marion Russell, The Custer Fight, depicts the Battle of Little Bighorn from the Indian side.
On that day, George Armstrong Custer led his troops in pursuit of a group of Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer tried to surprise the Indian camp—but ended up surprised himself. Led by Sitting Bull, the Indian band—numbering around 2,000 warriors, not the 800 that Custer estimated—routed the US Army. In Custer’s last stand, he and five of the 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry lost their lives.
Nearly 15 years later, on December 29, 1890, a fight broke out near Wounded Knee Creek between US Army soldiers and some of the last remnants of the Lakota Sioux tribe. When it was all over, several hundred Indians lay dead, buried in a mass grave. The era of sustained Indian resistance was over.
If you’re like me, you’ve viewed these events through the lens of popular assumptions. We think the Indians lost, ultimately, because they had bows and arrows, while the European-Americans had guns. Though some Indians had firearms, they depended on European-Americans to supply them. It was an unwinnable technological mismatch.
I’ve since learned that the seeds of the Indian’s ultimate fall were sown centuries prior.
When Custer fell at Little Bighorn, nearly 400 years had elapsed since Europeans first set permanent foot in the New World. This time gap concealed one of the most important secrets about the fate of Native Americans. The secret was hidden in the baptism and death records of the Spanish churches in the New World.
In the 1950s, when researchers began to examine the numbers in these records, they discovered a troubling discrepancy between births (baptisms) and deaths. You’ve probably heard about Native deaths due to smallpox and other European-borne diseases. You’ve probably not heard about their magnitude.
The exact number of Indians who lived in the pre-Columbian Americas remains a contentious subject. Estimates range from 8 million to 113 million. The exact number is significant because it affects the degree to which the population collapsed. By the 1800s, only around 8 million Native Americans remained.
Middle-of-the-road estimates put the total around 54 million.4 About 4 million lived north of the Rio Grande. Another 26 million called Central America and the Caribbean home. In South America, 24 million resided.
By 1800, more than 85% of the combined total were gone. In other words, when Custer and his men engaged the Sioux and Cheyenne, the Indians were already a dying people. Overwhelming numerical disadvantage all but ensured the outcome.
For comparison, the total population of Europe in AD 1400 was only 60 million. The Black Death culled anywhere from 25% to 33% of the earlier European population. On the eve of European arrival in the New World, the Americas held nearly as many people. And then almost 90% of the Indians would disappear.
Where were all these pre-Columbian people living? What were they doing? This time, it wasn’t Spanish baptism and death records that held the answer. It was the dense jungles of South and Central America.
Widely held stereotypes inform our expectations: Once a cloud forest, always a cloud forest, right?
Part of the reason we’ve missed these conclusions is the speed with which the evidence has disappeared. In 2018, a group of scientists reported their examination of an Ecuadorian cloud forest (an elevated rainforest).5 Widely held stereotypes inform our expectations: Once a cloud forest, always a cloud forest, right? These researchers answered this question by sampling the history of the cloud forest through sediments in a nearby lake.
In the uppermost layers, the plant material was consistent with the surrounding cloud forest ecosystem. In deeper layers, which they dated to the AD 1600s and early 1700s, the plant material suggested the area was an open grassland, not a cloud forest. Even deeper, prior to European arrival in this region in AD 1588, the sediments revealed a shock. The pre-European layers showed that the cloud forest was once farmland—fields of maize. In just a few centuries, farmland went to open grassland, which then turned into a cloud forest, burying the evidence of prior human activity.
Perhaps this is why Europeans have so often viewed the Native American way of life as primitive. When early European settlers encountered Iroquois, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes, these Europeans saw a people with technology that was inferior to their own. To this day, the uncontacted tribes who emerge from the Amazon jungle look like they came from another era. They dress in little or no clothing. They hunt with bows and arrows. They show little evidence of the material progress that defines the modern era.
But the Native Americans haven’t always been this way. Their post-Columbian societal collapse reduced them to a shadow of their former glory. As Charles Mann put it, the label primitive is uninformed by historical fact. It’s as if we came “across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”6
These advances are just the tip of the iceberg in the emerging narrative of Native American history. You can read more in chapter 12 of my book Traced: Human DNA’s Big Surprise,7 where you’ll find that creation scientists are taking the lead in this research. And if you’re Native American, you can join several other Native Americans as we attempt to unravel the rest of this pre-Columbian narrative—all within this radically new and exciting historical framework.8
Contact the author at AnswersInGenesis.org/go/traced.