Early European Mythology of American Indian Origins

( – promoted by navajo)

At the beginning of the European Age of Discovery in the sixteenth century, Europeans knew that all human beings had originally come out of the Garden of Eden and that this Garden of Eden was located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq. They knew this because of the stories in their origin myths and they accepted these myths as absolute fact. Thus, when they encountered people living in the distant Americas, they were faced with two basic problems: (1) were these people human, and (2) if they were human, how did they get from the Garden of Eden to the Americas? Related to the second question is the question of why these people were there.  

European scholars during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries simply disregarded Native American origin stories which explained where the people had come from and why they were there. In many cases these scholars were unaware of Native American origin stories and in other cases they simply assumed that these origin stories must be false if they conflicted with the European story of creation.  

Fairly soon after word of people living in the Americas reached European scholars and clerics, they concluded that these people must be human. This meant that the scholars had to now answer the questions of “how” and “why” and do so in such a fashion that was compatible with their own origin stories.

One of the first scholars to attempt to answer these questions was José de Acosta. A Jesuit scholar, de Acosta had occupied an academic chair in theology before being sent to the Americas. Unlike some of the other earlier authors who had written about the history of the Americas, such as Francisco López de Gómara whose Historia general de las Indias (General History of the Indians) had been published in 1554, de Acosta had first-hand experience with Native Americas.

In 1590, José de Acosta’s Historia natural y moral de las Indias was published. In this work, he postulated that American Indians had arrived in the Americas by walking across a land bridge from Asia. This reason was not based on Indian oral tradition nor on any “hard” evidence that such a bridge had existed. Instead it was based on biblical knowledge: he believed that the human species had originated in the Old World based on the teachings of the Bible. Therefore, the only logical way for them to have reached the continent was by walking.

Like the other early European scholars, José de Acosta had to explain why the descendants of Noah had become the idolatrous barbarians. For this he provided a theory of their degeneration to a state of savagery and a posterior reinvention of culture under the tutelage of Satan.

The theme of Indians being under Satan’s spell, of Indians worshiping Satan, is a theme which has often emerged in explaining the existence of Indians in the Americas.  In 1756, for example, Jonathan Edwards, the missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, preached that Indians had been guided by Satan away from the Gospel, eastward across Asia, and then to North America. In North America, Indians were Satan’s peculiar people and their religion was devil worship.

Approaching the topic from a different viewpoint in 1622, English scholar Edward Brerewood in Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages, and Religions, Through the Chief Parts of the World speculated that the Tartars (now known as Mongolians) were the first people to enter the Americas.

A number of writers, both scholars and clerics, addressed the issue of why there were Indians in the Americas and why they either had no religion or they were Satanists. In 1634, letters from well-known theologian Joseph Mede to New England ministers suggested that Indians had migrated to the Americas because the Devil had led them there. Afraid of losing his dominance in Europe as the Gospel spread, Satan had gathered together hordes of barbarous northerners who had never heard of Christ. Satan then promised them an empty land superior to their own. On this land they would thrive in a kingdom over which he would rule.

In 1642, Dutch philosopher and theologian Hugo Grotius, in his On the Origins of the Native Races of America, concluded the Indians were the descendents of Germans and Chinese. He postulates that some of the ancestors of the American Indians came from Europe, passing from Norway to Iceland, and then from there to Greenland and the Americas.  

In Jewes in America, or probabilities that the Americans are of that race, published in 1650, Thomas Thorowgood made a comparison of Jewish and Indian cultures in an attempt to prove that Indians were really Jewish. He suggested that Indians were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. He cited the similarity between Indian and Jewish rites, knowledge of the flood, dancing, and circumcision. Taking into account Indian stories, he wrote:

The Indians do themselves relate things of their Ancestors, suteable to what we read of the Jewes in the Bible, and elsewhere, which they also mentioned to the Spaniards at their first accesse thither

The Indians judge the Sunne, Moone and Starres to be living creatures, a thing so avowed in the Jewish Talmud shewing it to be a thing easie enough for the Heavens to declare the glory of God

The rites, fashions, ceremonies, and opinions of the Americans are in many ways agreeable to the custome of the Jewes, not onely prophane and common usages, but such as be called solemn and sacred.

This evoked a response from Sir Marmon l’Estrange whose 1752 work Americans no Jews, or improbabilities that the Americans are of that race pointed out that the features mentioned by Thomas Thorowgood were general human customs and not evidence that Indians were Jews.

Several centuries later, why should we care what these early Europeans had so say? American Indians are acutely aware that the European presumption of having a universal origin story is ethnocentric at best and often imperialistic. In the ensuring centuries, the religious explanations have given way to scientific explanations, and Indian people question why these explanations should take precedence over Native American origin stories. The resentments nurtured by these early explanations which ignored and degraded Indian religions have generated a strong skepticism about the motives of any non-Indian who attempts an explanation of Indian origins.  

One thought on “Early European Mythology of American Indian Origins

  1. Very well written article Ojibwa =).

    I would love to hear what the Native American folklore is as to their origins! I have heard everything from other planets (from Native Americans themselves), or from Mongolia (from some other Native Americans). I have been to Korea and know a lot of Korean people, and when I saw one Korean tribal leader be gifted a Native American ivory breastplate at a ceremony by a Native American Chief at a ceremony, I was amazed how much this Korean man looked so Native American and so handsome too!

    One cannot discount the oriental facial features many Native Americans have. What do you think about this and can you please share with me what you understand as to origins? I find the topic fascinating!

    Thank you very much,

    new-moon-rising

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