On our route, patterns of history

Reykjavik, Iceland - This summer, a hardy crew of Scandinavians will sail a very small ship from the harbor here out across the freezing, wind-swept waters of the North Atlantic to the west and south along the coast of the United Staes. In a replica of Leif Ericson's boat, a graceful wooden vessel totally open to the elements, they will mimic the historic trip he made 1,000 years ago - a search for new lands and new possibilities.

All the world's been on the move. Or so it seems as we fly our way north and then west from the continent that holds the "cradle of civilization" to the New World of North America.

"This whole trip is a study in migration," says Arthur Hussey, the pilot of the Cessna. With our bird's-eye view, this kind of thought occurs in a way that it doesn't at home.

We started in an area - Africa - populated fairly recently by European settlers. Long before their settlement, there was the movement of Bantu people out of the Nile River Valley and down the continent. The Hausa moved south from the Sahara. The Taureg went into Mauritania. The Moors into Morocco. Traced back far enough, we all came out of the Nile region.

But as Arthur says, "The history of humanity is the history of migration." Over pasta at the Caruso Restaurant here in Reykjavic the other night, we reviewed that history and what it says about who's "native" to any given region.

Take the Portuguese. They first came to what is now Mozambique some 500 years ago. "The important thing about the Portuguese is that they came to live, they came to stay," says Arthur, who's lived in Mozambique and speaks Portuguese. "The British and the French [who colonized other parts of Africa] were more there to administer." The Afrikaner migration inland from the Cape began nearly 400 years ago.

"This sort of stuff raises a question about who's really indigenous," says Arthur. "The average white family in Southern Africa has been there longer than the average white family has been in America." To some anthropologists, the remains of "Kennewick Man," found along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State three years ago, appear to be European rather than Asian. Since those remains are at least 9,000 years old, what does that say about who are "native" Americans?

As we head north, other migration patterns emerge. The Spanish who came to the Canary Islands. The Berber movement in Morocco. The Christian monks who left what is now Germany in the early 6th century to establish what became Celtic communities in Ireland as well as parts of Spain and France we have passed through. Lineal descendants of those early Celts now populate South Boston.

The original inhabitants here in Iceland were Norse, as were those in the Faroe Islands, where we last stopped. "We say that when the Norwegians came over, the weak ones stopped in the Faroes and the strong ones went on to Iceland," jokes Tor, a fellow we met here at a guest house. Many Scandinavians pressed on to America. Garrison Keillor has made a career of telling "Norwegian bachelor farmer" stories set in Minnesota. My Icelandic in-laws came to the US by way of Canada, where we expect be in a few days.

MIGRATION continues - between continents and within them. Whites from Southern Africa move to Australia and New Zealand. Polish farmers of German descent return to their "homeland." Migrants flee war and famine. The Elian Gonzalezes sail small boats from Cuba. Migrants (like Arthur and me) move long distances to live in Alaska and Oregon.

Such movements add to the richness and diversity of communities. But they may bring trouble. Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and - most recently - Britain have begun cracking down on asylum seekers. Critics say "economic migrants" from Africa, China, and former East-bloc countries aren't really among the politically persecuted, but are simply looking for a better life. Gypsies from Romania and the Czech Republic are particular targets of Britain's new law restricting payments to asylum seekers.

We don't see the specifics of such stories from the air, although we hear about them from Europeans staying in the guest houses where we stop overnight. And as we continue our aerial journey, we see the history of such patterns across the landscape we traverse.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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