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Distributed February 11, 2005
Contact Mary Jo Curtis

Through May 1, 2005
JCB Library Presents Exhibition on Native American Origins

The John Carter Brown Library is presenting a new exhibition, Whence Came the Indians? Early European Theories on Native American Origins, through May 1, 2005. The exhibition, prepared by Richard Ring and Dennis Landis, features writings, publications and maps primarily from the 16th and 17th centuries. It is free and open to the public.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, he had no reason to wonder who the natives he encountered were or how they came to those shores. Thinking he had reached Asia, he believed they were indios – residents of the Indies.


Whence Came the Indians?
In this 16th-century map, a network of islands would have facilitated transit from Asia to America – hence the idea that Native Americans may have migrated across the Pacific. From Peeter Heyns, Breve compendio dal Theatro Orteliano. Contenendo la delineatione de tutti li regioni principale del mondo (Antwerp, 1602). From the collection of the John Carter Brown Library.

After Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in the 1520s, it become obvious that what we now know as America was a distinct land mass, separate from the known continents. Only then did European explorers begin to question how the natives had arrived in this new land before them. Their theories of explanation are explored now through May 1, 2005, in Whence Came the Indians? Early European Theories on Native American Origins, a new exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library.

Whence Came the Indians? features writings, publications and maps primarily from the 16th and 17th century, from Columbus’ own observations in 1493 and those of Amerigo Vespucci in 1506, to Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (London, 1702) and Gregorio Garcia’s Origen de los Indios (Madrid, 1729). The exhibition, free and open to the public, was prepared by Richard Ring, reference and acquisitions librarian for the JCB, and Dennis C. Landis, the JCB’s curator of European books.

Europeans knew little of the lands beyond their own continent, and from the earliest times, its writers tied the origin of America’s inhabitants to their existing frames of reference. Their explanations were many and varied: Some believed the natives were descended from ancient Carthaginians who had encountered an Atlantic island beyond Gibraltar, others that the seafaring Spaniards had long ago settled the distant isles. Some argued the inhabitants of ancient Atlantis migrated to the New World before the island sank into the sea, while others thought the natives came from ancient Wales or Troy.

There were also efforts to link the New World with mysterious places mentioned in the Bible, including the Garden of Eden. In the latter half of the 16th century, interpreters identified the Indians as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel or as descendants of Noah. Given the wide dispersal of people and the presence of different animals, some writers posited the so-called “two-Adam theory” – a second creation. By the end of the 16th century, one theory held that people from Asia had traveled eastward to the Americas: The Chinese had come in sailing ships or the Scythians or Tartars had migrated across a continental land bridge or a narrow strait in the uncharted lands to the north. The weaknesses in the early theories, coupled with the great variations in custom, language and social organization observed among the natives of the Americas, led later writers to speculate they had multiple origins in Asia, Africa and Europe.

The exhibition features five sections, each focused on a group of theories:

  • First Encounters: The peoples of Asia (with biblical undercurrents);
  • First Theories: Classical references and legends;
  • The Lost Jews: A grounding in the Old Testament;
  • Wandering Asians: Migrations, straits and land bridges;
  • The Multiple Origin Theory: The Grotius–De Laet controversy.

The John Carter Brown Library is an independently funded and administered institution for advanced research in history and the humanities, founded in 1846 and located at Brown University since 1901. The library houses one of the world’s outstanding collections of books, maps and manuscripts relating to the colonial period of North and South America from 1492 to ca. 1825. It also offers fellowships, sponsors lectures and conferences, regularly mounts exhibitions for the public, and publishes catalogues, bibliographies, facsimiles and other works that interpret the library’s holdings.

The library is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, except during University holidays. The Simón Bolívar Room is open on request. For more information, see or call (401) 863-2725.


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