Myths of the Primordial Waters

Plato wrote that the past is like the wake behind a boat; it spreads, and diminishes behind us, and merges with the surrounding sea. The past rolls under and is gone.

We stand upon the foredeck of Plato’s boat, gazing forward, cleaving our path toward the future. Along the track of our traveling many things are lost – because we are always searching ahead, because the wake is jostling and turbulent, because our craft is small and the ocean is vast.

It is by means of this manner of journeying into the future that our knowledge of ancient peoples is vanishingly small. We know a fair amount about the last thousand years of our history, we surmise a sketch of the thousand years before that – and of the remote ages before that, we know very little. Snatches, really, vignettes gathered from scattered documents and fragmentary tales. For the great majority of the history of modern humans – a hundred thousand years, two hundred thousand, no one knows – we understand almost nothing. Along our own coasts, which once were at lower altitude than they are now, ancient villages lie hidden beneath the wake of passing boats above.

And yet, old stories have been handed down from that long, invisible stretch of years: fables, epics, mythologies of archaic and unknown origin. Among those ancient tales is a set of related motifs, from many cultures, that tell of seafarers who found their way to distant shores. In China, Polynesia, Japan, Egypt, Africa, Scandinavia – in most places bordered by the sea – we find fantastic tales of oceanic travel. On our own coasts – in Haida Gwaii, and along the sheltered eastern shore of Vancouver Island, and inland all the way to the Kootenays – similar stories are told of those who came long ago, and lived upon the land, and vanished.

For at least a century, since archaeology and anthropology became sciences based on hard evidence, such cultural tales have been dismissed as folklore and wishful thinking. The evidence simply did not support the stories. The timelines claimed by various cultures seemed inconsistent with what was surmised about technologies and methods from various historical and pre-historical periods. The ruins of ancient sites could not be found (near Atlin, for example, or near Telkwa, both sites where aboriginal tales describe cities of utmost antiquity). The longevity of known sites could not be established from existing data (the Nanaimo petroglyphs, for example). Eventually, the scientific consensus was that the claims of myth were just that: imagined tales, with no actual basis.

But within about the last decade, a wealth of new evidence challenges, and will likely soon overturn, traditional scientific views concerning human migration in the ancient world. The emerging data comes from various fields: genetics, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and the developing field of archaeo-astronomy. Working sometimes in concert and other times in conflict, these fields are leading us through a fundamental paradigm shift in our perspective of the past.

The history of science consistently confirms something we easily forget: that most of our certainties will turn out to be wrong. What’s turning out to be wrong at the moment is our conception of the peopling of the Americas. The standard theory – the Bering land bridge, ice-free corridors, southward migration – has begun to give way to a more nuanced and complex view involving multiple waves of ancient immigrants arriving at different times and by disparate means.

Debates and developments within the scientific community typically take place in closed meetings at universities and at conferences not attended by the general public. But the conversation about ancient migration has become very public since the 1996 discovery of a skeleton known as Kennewick Man. He was found on the banks of the Columbia River, in Washington State, by a pair of spectators watching hydroplane races. Initially, local aboriginal groups claimed him as one of their own; an ancestor, perhaps a fallen warrior from long ago.

But archaeologists who studied Kennewick Man found a curious thing: he is not aboriginal. His remains are old – approximately 9,300 years old – but he is not an ancestor of any current aboriginal population. In fact, he’s Asian. He may be an ancestor of modern Pacific Islanders, or of the Ainu people of northeast Asia. In either case, he traveled here more than ten thousand years ago, likely with a small population of others like him who made their careful way inland and across the Pacific Northwest.

Kennewick Man is not the only oddity of the ancient human landscape. Many so-called anomalous remains and sites have been found in both North and South America: Monte Verde, for example, in Chile, and the entire collection of colossal stone remains in Mexico known as the Olmec culture. Along British Columbia’s Inside Passage, near the Yuculta rapids, stone sculptors carved somber faces into twenty-six granite boulders on the shore, more than at any other site on the Pacific coast. The carvers are long gone, vanished but for these stone traces of mystery.

As the number of anomalies has accumulated, the trajectory of the scientific conversation has changed too: from dismissal, to caution, to contention, and finally to a new consensus. That final, new consensus has not yet fully emerged, but its basic elements are already in place: many groups of migrating people came to North and South America – ten, twenty, perhaps as much as thirty thousand years ago – in separate and commingling waves of odyssey, exile, and accident.

And how did they come? By boat.

Imagine those ancient mariners, navigating by the stars, uncertain of their destination, traveling in what might have been open canoes or out-rigged rafts or makeshift kayaks. No compass, no map, no protection against the sea’s indifference. Nothing but sheer guts and necessity.

They came at different times and, no doubt, by varying means: from Japan, Russia, Southeast Asia, Polynesia (likely from Europe, as well). They established settlements here, lived upon the land for some stretch of time, then disappeared. Perhaps they were subsumed into existing or descendant groups. Perhaps most of them were wiped out by an asteroid impact 13,000 years ago (as one recent theory suggests). But no one knows. The descendants of the original, pre-migration peoples still exist in Japan, Russia, and Polynesia. They are the Ainu, the Jomon, the Polynesians; and they are still here, thousands of years after small clusters of their people sailed across the sea.

The puzzle of the most archaic groups is deepened by the fact that sea levels are now as much as 30 metres higher than they were 10,000 or more years ago. Villages that once lay at the seaside are now long immersed, swept by the amnesia of the waters, erased beneath Plato’s persistent wake.

However, anomalous underwater stone sites have been found in Japan, Cuba, Malta, Egypt, and elsewhere. After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, stone artifacts from an ancient and fabled submerged city, once dismissed by archaeologists as mythological, were washed up on the beach by the force of the tsunami. These artifacts include six-foot high statues of the head and shoulders of an elephant, a horse in flight, and a reclining lion.

In Haida Gwaii, traditional myths tell of the ancient rise of the sea, of ice floes moving across the land, of sudden and drastic upheavals that transformed the islands. And those Haida myths also speak of an earlier people, now gone, who inhabited that mystic place long ago, and of whom nothing is now left but ghosts.

Those ghosts take many contemporary forms: the sea-wolf petroglyph south of Nanaimo, the unique Christina Lake petroglyph, the funereal mound at Keremeos, the persistent tales of the fabled city of Dimlahamid in northern British Columbia, between the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. And Kennewick Man, of course, who may have known, when he was alive, the meaning of the stone sculptures at Yuculta, or might himself have carved images into stones scattered across a river delta. His people were here, after all – in what is now Vancouver, and Victoria, and inland by way of the rivers – and the settlements of our people today are laid over those of his people by thousands of years of rainfall, wind, and memory.

And yet the ancient evidence swells, and spreads, and cannot be laid to final rest: scattered human remains, colossal in their age; Polynesian chicken bones found in Peru; genetic anomalies among various cultural groups (the Scots, for example, may be descended from ancient seafaring Egyptians).

The old boats are gone, of course, long undone by the alchemy of salt water on wood. But the tales remain, and have not surrendered their claims of authenticity. And now, finally, science is coming forward to meet the mythological narrative. The new and shared story, woven together by the threads of both science and cultural memory, is this:

No single people came first to the Americas, but instead many came, in small sorties and great armadas, during a period of human history about which we are profoundly ignorant. Before the Ice Age and after it they arrived, and made homes for themselves, and left only the tiny traces typical of the human story. Their cultures appeared and vanished again (as our cultures will also).

These disparate groups were united by the sea, the great trackless track that challenged and delivered them. The mariners of today are the descendants, in spirit, of those early nomads who first harnessed the wind. We pass over their graves, somewhere between the shore and the deep water. Watch for that place – 30 metres of depth – and recognize, as you pass over that line, the legacy you inherit: love of the wide waters, the quest for adventure, the longing for what lies over the horizon. These are the gifts of the vanished peoples, whom we will never know except by the ways in which we are stirred, even now, by their ancient dreams.