Native American Indians Lost Civilizations Powell Doctrine








The following sections are taken from J. W. Powell's first report by the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It sets forth how archaeological data can be used. Powell states that if the archaeological data is pictographic in nature and older than Columbus then the evidence should be discarded. Effectively, this discredits all of the tablets and stones that have hints of European origin. Text has been highlighted to show the general attitude towards the Indians. Notice the very last highlighted entry.


Investigations in this department are of great interest, and have attracted to the field a host of workers; but a general review of the mass of published matter exhibits the fact that the uses to which the material has been put have not always been wise.

In the monuments of antiquity found throughout North America, in camp and village sites, graves, mounds, ruins, and scattered works of art, the origin and development of art in savage and barbaric life may be satisfactorily studied. Incidentally, too, hints of customs may be discovered, but outside of this, the discoveries made have often been illegitimately used, especially for the purpose of connecting the tribes of North America with peoples or so-called races of antiquity in other portions of the world. A brief review of some conclusions that must be accepted in the present status of the science will exhibit the futility of these attempts.

It is now an established fact that man was widely scattered over the earth at least as early as the beginning of the quaternary period, and, perhaps, in pliocene time.

If we accept the conclusion that there is but one species of man, as species are now defined by biologists, we may reasonably conclude that the species has been dispersed from some common center, as the ability to successfully carry on the battle of life in all climes belongs only to a highly developed being; but this original home has not yet been ascertained with certainty, and when discovered, lines of migration therefrom cannot be mapped until the changes in the physical geography of the earth from that early time to the present have been discovered, and these must be settled upon purely geologic and paleontologic evidence. The migrations of mankind from that original home cannot be intelligently discussed until that home has been discovered, and, further, until the geology of the globe is so thoroughly known that the different phases of its geography can be presented.

The dispersion of man must have been anterior to the development of any but the rudest arts. Since that time the surface of the earth has undergone many and important changes. All known camp and village sites, graves, mounds, and ruins belong to that portion of geologic time known as the present epoch, and are entirely subsequent to the period of the original dispersion as shown by geologic evidence.

In the study of these antiquities, there has been much unnecessary speculation in respect to the relation existing between the people to whose existence they attest, and the tribes of Indians inhabiting the country during the historic period.

It may be said that in the Pueblos discovered in the southwestern portion of the United States and farther south through Mexico and perhaps into Central America tribes are known having a culture quite as far advanced as any exhibited in the discovered ruins. In this respect, then, there is no need to search for an extra-limital origin through lost tribes for any art there exhibited.

With regard to the mounds so widely scattered between the two oceans, it may also be said that mound-building tribes were known in the early history of discovery of this continent, and that the vestiges of art discovered do not excel in any respect the arts of the Indian tribes known to history. There is, therefore, no reason for us to search for an extra-limital origin through lost tribes for the arts discovered in the mounds of North America.

The tracing of the origin of these arts to the ancestors of known tribes or stocks of tribes is more legitimate, but it has limitations which are widely disregarded. The tribes which had attained to the highest culture in the southern portion of North America are now well known to belong to several different stocks, and, if, for example, an attempt is made to connect the mound-builders with the Pueblo Indians, no result beyond confusion can be reached until the particular stock of these village peoples is designated.

Again, it is contained in the recorded history of the country that several distinct stocks of the present Indians were mound-builders and the wide extent and vast number of mounds discovered in the United States should lead us to suspect, at least, that the mound-builders of pre-historic times belonged to many and diverse stocks. With the limitations thus indicated the identification of mound-building peoples as distinct tribes or stocks is a legitimate study, but when we consider the further fact now established, that arts extend beyond the boundaries of linguistic stocks, the most fundamental divisions we are yet able to make of the peoples of the globe, we may more properly conclude that this field promises but a meager harvest; but the origin and development of arts and industries is in itself a vast and profoundly interesting theme of study, and when North American archæology is pursued with this end in view, the results will be instructive.


The pictographs of North America were made on divers substances. The bark of trees, tablets of wood, the skins of animals, and the surfaces of rocks were all used for this purpose; but the great body of picture-writing as preserved to us is found on rock surfaces, as these are the most enduring.

From Dighton Rock to the cliffs that overhang the Pacific, these records are found—on bowlders fashioned by the waves of the sea, scattered by river floods, or polished by glacial ice; on stones buried in graves and mounds; on faces of rock that appear in ledges by the streams; on cañon walls and towering cliffs; on mountain crags and the ceilings of caves—wherever smooth surfaces of rock are to be found in North America, there we may expect to find pictographs. So widely distributed and so vast in number, it is well to know what purposes they may serve in anthropologic science.

Many of these pictographs are simply pictures, rude etchings, or paintings, delineating natural objects, especially animals, and illustrate simply the beginning of pictorial art; others we know were intended to commemorate events or to represent other ideas entertained by their authors; but to a large extent these were simply mnemonic—not conveying ideas of themselves, but designed more thoroughly to retain in memory certain events or thoughts by persons who were already cognizant of the same through current hearsay or tradition. If once the memory of the thought to be preserved has passed from the minds of men, the record is powerless to restore its own subject-matter to the understanding.

The great body of picture-writings is thus described; yet to some slight extent pictographs are found with characters more or less conventional, and the number of such is quite large in Mexico and Central America. Yet even these conventional characters are used with others less conventional in such a manner that perfect records were never made.

Hence it will be seen that it is illegitimate to use any pictographic matter of a date anterior to the discovery of the continent by Columbus for historic purposes; but it has a legitimate use of profound interest, as these pictographs exhibit the beginning of written language and the beginning of pictorial art, yet undifferentiated; and if the scholars of America will collect and study the vast body of this material scattered everywhere—over the valleys and on the mountain sides—from it can be written one of the most interesting chapters in the early history of mankind.

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