Thomas Jefferson may have been the best educated American of his generation, which informed the quality of his prose and the depth of his observations. Notes on Virginia
(1787), his only book, makes clear what a fine observer he really was, guided by his broad education and clear thinking. In Query XI
, he provides A description of the Indians.
He first notes the Barrows, of which many are to be found all over this country. These were also called Mounds, and gave rise to the myth of the Moundbuilders, a now-disappeared civilization of non-Indians who built the many sizeable earthen structures scattered all over the country. It couldn't possibly have been the ancestors of the Indians, early Americans figured. Jefferson didn't figure -- he dug. A hundred years before archaeologists standardized stratigraphical analysis, Jefferson headed out to a nearby "barrow" of about 40 feet in diameter and dug a trench clear through it, confirming it was a burial structure that contained a large assemblage of jumbled bones. They were seen to be in layers: a strata of bones, covered by stones and a deposit of dirt, then another layer of bones, and so on. He estimated about one thousand skeletons in total in the barrow. The bones nearest the surface were least decayed, and he noted this militate[s] against the opinion, that [the barrow] covered the bones only of persons fallen in battle. Jefferson noted no artifacts in his dig, but many mounds did yield copper ornaments and stone implements, as noted at this Minnesota State University museum site. He also noted the connection between the barrow he dug, the abandoned Indian village nearby, and living Indian groups he had observed reverently visiting the barrow.
Jefferson then addressed the key question: From whence came those aboriginal inhabitants of America? I quote his response:
Discoveries, long ago made, were sufficient to shew that a passage from Europe to America was always practicable, even to the imperfect navigation of ancient times. In going from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Groenland, from Groenland to Labrador, the first traject is the widest: and this having been practised from the earliest times of which we have any account of that part of the earth, it is not difficult to suppose that the subsequent trajects may have been sometimes passed. Again, the late discoveries of Captain Cook, coasting from Kamschatka to California, have proved that, if the two continents of Asia and America be separated at all, it is only by a narrow streight. So that from this side also, inhabitants may have passed into America: and the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former: excepting indeed the Eskimaux, who, from the same circumstance of resemblance, and from identity of language, must be derived from the Groenlanders, and these probably from some of the northern parts of the old continent. A knowledge of their several languages would be the most certain evidence of their derivation which could be produced.
He then notes the great diversity of Indian languages, reasons that language dialects diverge over time, and concludes that A greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia.
Summing up, twenty years before Joseph Smith was even born, Jefferson determined that there had been no "Moundbuilders," that it was the "aboriginal Americans," ancestors of the then-living Indians rather than an ancient white race or wandering Israelites, who constructed the Mounds. Furthermore, he used linguistic reasoning to correctly infer the deep antiquity of the Native American presence on the continent, sketched the two now-accepted routes of migration by which humans first came to the Americas, and surmised that Asia was the more likely direction from whence they came. What's amazing isn't just his thoroughly scientific approach to this question, but that he also laid out an entirely natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanation to what remained for many years a real puzzle to most Americans and to many scholars. All this in twelve pages of a book he wrote while taking a break in the countryside from his real job as a Founding Father (Governor of Virginia until 1781; afterwards delegate to Congress, Minister to France, Secretary of State, and President). Well done, Mr. Jefferson.