These thoughts are the result of teaching several semesters of an introductory history course, similar to courses traditionally titled “Western Civ.” In teaching this course, I have begun to think that the history of Native Americans in the United States is missing a very important conclusion from the data: that our understanding of “tribal society” represents not an age-old practice, but rather the recently produced consequences of massive die-off and the disappearance of a larger, less scattered, and in some cases decidedly urban population.
Similar to other professors of history, I teach a class called Western Civilization stretching in one semester from ancient times up to the year 1500 and the arrival of Columbus on the fringes of the New World. However, rather than stop dead in our tracks, we spend the last two lectures discussing the reputation and legacy of Columbus through the lawsuits his family endured to protect their rights to their inheritance, and putting the Black Death (covered earlier in the semester) in context by comparing it with the much larger loss of life in the centuries after the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas.
I am particularly interested in the career of Hernando de Soto (c. 1495-1542), who wandered the southern North American continent for several years with a pillaging army before he died of a fever.
Their accounts of densely populated areas were considered wildly inaccurate when Europeans came again to the same areas more than a century later. This offers an enticing glimpse into the surviving descendants of the inhabitants of Cahokia and the broader Mississippian urban culture of the centuries prior to 1500. While Soto found a large population still living in the area, there is also the possibility that some, maybe most, of the inhabitants of the cities of and around Cahokia where those mentioned in the origins of the Aztecs, coming from the fabled Aztlan (Aztec, in the Nahuatl language, has been rendered into English as “people from Aztlan”).
Having drawn these conclusions, I have looked for others who have had the time and expertise to articulate these ideas better than me. For a quick read, I recommend this piece in The Atlantic,1491. The best long-form book I have found so far is Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 by Dr. Noble David Cook, published by the Cambridge University Press in the late twentieth century. At the time it was hailed as a challenge to the traditional view that the massive loss of life could largely be blamed on the excesses and exploitation specific to Spanish (versus English or French) colonialism, an idea still widely entertained, though long since challenged by professional historians. Two valuable aspects of Dr. Cook’s book that strike me at this moment are his reliance on the contemporary source material from the sixteenth century and his detailed tracing of the history of how differently people in different eras have tried to answer one specific question: how did a handful of Europeans conquer and annihilate two massive, urbanized civilizations, the Aztecs and the Incas? The many ways in which this question has been answered have a lot to teach us. From Dr. Cook’s analysis of the contemporary material, he argued convincingly that disease arrived already with Columbus’ second voyage, much earlier than the more famously discussed small pox outbreak of 1513. The only real shortcoming of the work is specifically in the area that I have been interested in: Dr. Cook did not extend his analysis to the effects of this cluster of epidemics to the North American continent.
Allow me to hazard some specifics to flesh out my educated guess.
When Europeans moved into North America in the sixteenth century, the people they encountered were the handful of survivors of a series of epidemics causing a loss of life greater than fifty percent of the population, perhaps as high as eighty or even ninety percent. No matter the specifics, there were survivors and even examples of total village annihilation. In some parts of the continent, relatively small communities survived more intact due to their remoteness… but this same remoteness led them to be relatively unfamiliar with the larger communities from which they were estranged. These survivors banded together, struggling to make do with the new reality, its difficulties, and the loss of their earlier way of life made possible by larger populations. The growth rate of these survivor populations was relatively slow at first, but increased with the arrival of the settler populations, so that swiftly the two groups came into direct competition over the limited resources of individual areas of the continent. The later arriving Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw these tribal, atomized, scattered societies and their practices and assumed their comparatively primitive lifestyle was the result of something other than massive die-offs in the sixteenth century. Due to the massive cultural loss caused by the swift destruction of 80-90% of the indigenous population, large sections of their previous history were reduced to legend, or worse, total oblivion. The indigenous, within six or eight generations, when their histories were being recorded in large numbers for the first time, weaved a tale that explained their current situation: They had always lived in the way they were living in the nineteenth century, even as some of their European observers corrected them with the earlier written accounts recorded by their distant ancestors in the seventeenth century.
I am borrowing maybe too freely from James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott has argued at length about the need to re-evaluate those living in stateless areas, the “uncivilized” populations of hillbillies and mountain people so widely disregarded by urbanized, civilized populations. I, and other historians, have successfully used Scott’s arguments in places far flung from his original research area of Southeast Asia, but using them to discuss the remnants of a crumbling preColumbian culture is perhaps a bridge too far.
In terms of the loss of cultural memory, allow me to risk some analogies to ancient history. The example that I find most useful pertains to Ancient Greece and the fact that the Greeks, in two different scenarios separated by centuries, developed a written language. Centuries before Homer and the tales of Odysseus and Achilles, speakers of a language closely resembling Ancient Greek began to use an alphabet known to linguists as Linear B, which they borrowed from speakers of an older and (as-yet) undecipherable language written with an alphabet called Linear A. However, during the twelfth century before Christ, there occurred a series of calamities historians have dubbed the Bronze Age Collapse. The civilization of these pre-Homeric Greeks, the Mycenaeans, entered a decline and quickly stopped using Linear B to record their words. For centuries, no Greek language was recorded at all — a period referred to as the Greek Dark Ages, during which the historical Homer (or similar bards) composed the epic poetry many students still study in High School. Not until the eighth century before Christ do we see evidence of the Greeks writing Greek again, now in the Phoenician alphabet, supposedly with zero knowledge or understanding of these older pieces of writing.
One of the aspects of this line of questioning I find most distressing is how a descendant of one of the indigenous of this continent may read it. While I am attacking the basis of the “savage Indian” tropes, I am also calling into question the age-old defense of age-old harmony and eco-friendly tribes living “as one with nature,” the kind of saccharine depictions lampooned in Disney’s Pocahontas (1953) and to a lesser degree in the film The New World (2005). I am suggesting something attractive, I hope – true human equality, populations sharing the same sins and the same blessings, the same ability to live both ‘with nature,’ and also to shape it to one’s advantage. In this avenue of thought, I have great company, including: those studying the possibility that the Amazon rain forest is an artifact of human engineering; those looking to explain the success of the Puritan Pilgrims after 1620 by analyzing their recently diseased neighbors; and the growing body of evidence of an American ‘Silk Road’ of sorts connecting the continents north and south centuries before Columbus.
By the time President Thomas Jefferson of the young United States received a long, richly detailed letter describing vast urban ruins along the middle banks of the Mississippi river, other Europeans had long since traveled through. The mounds had long been settled by French trappers and their attendant priests and monks, the palisades of the indigenous settlements had fallen into ruin, and the local tribes were a fraction of their previous size. Unfortunately, the study of these ruins has lagged far behind that of older ruins in less population parts of the United States, and time may be running out. Some archaeologists and anthropologists have begun to connect the Cahokia complex and the larger Mississippian culture of the tenth through thirteenth centuries, but I do not know of any who have seriously suggested their downfall was related to the contemporary rise of the Aztecs in what-is-now Mexico. The rise of the Aztecs, however, seems to neatly line up with the decline of Cahokia, which anthropologists have linked to out-migration rather than massive loss of life. The image of water in the codex image posted above could represent a memory of a voyage down the Mississippi River and along the coast to what is now Mexico.
In the last forty years, the field of nomadic studies has taken great leaps forward which might allow scholars to make claims about the apparent age and origin of the nomadic societies described by European observers in the New World. It may be that what were considered timeless, nearly Biblical societies of tribal wanderers bear a only superficial resemblance with the kind of pastoral nomadism of the Old World, dependent on the livestock domestication so obviously absent from the New World prior to Columbus (with apologies to llama-herders). This does give me an idea for what I, a lowly historian of Central Asia, may have of value to bring to this richly-set academic table. The last word in this long thought-piece is that a great deal of important work is yet to be done in World History, specifically by bringing in outside perspectives and seeking (and dismissing) patterns where none have been sought before. Comparative histories of pastoral nomadic societies in the Old World set against those observed in the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is but one example of this exciting trend in World History.