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Nobody knows how many died during the pandemics of the 1770s and 1780s, but even if one had a number it wouldn't begin to tally the impact. Disease turned whole societies to ash. Six Cree groups in western Canada disappeared after 1781; the Blackfoot nation, blasted by smallpox, sent peace emissaries to Shoshone bands, only to find that all had vanished. "The country to the south was empty and silent," Galloway wrote. So broken were the Omaha by disease that according to tradition they launched a deliberately suicidal attack against their enemies. Those who did not die quit their villages and became homeless wanderers.
Cultures are like books, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once remarked, each a volume in the great library of humankind. In the sixteenth century, more books were burned than ever before or since. How many Homers vanished? How many Hesiods? What great works of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music vanished or never were created? Languages, prayers, dreams, habits, and hopes — all gone. And not just once, but over and over again. In our antibiotic era, how can we imagine what it means to have entire ways of life hiss away like steam? How can one assay the total impact of the unprecedented calamity that gave rise to the world we live in? It seems important to try. I would submit that the best way to come near to encompassing the scale and kind of the loss, and its causes, is to look at the single case where the intellectual life of a Native American society is almost as well documented as its destruction.
. . . .
Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophers and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. The musings of the tlamatinime occurred in intellectual neighborhoods frequented by philosophers from Brussels to Beijing, but the mix was entirely the Mexicans own. Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.
Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!
Here and there we see clues to what might have been. Pacific Northwest Indian artists carved beautiful masks, boxes, bas-reliefs, and totem poles within the dictates of an elaborate aesthetic system based on an ovoid shape that has no name in European languages. British ships in the nineteenth century radically transformed native art by giving the Indians brightly colored paints that unlike native pigments didn't wash off in the rain. Indians incorporated the new pigments into their traditions, expanding them and in the process creating an aesthetic nouvelle vague. European surrealists came across this colorful new art in the first years of the twentieth century As artists will, they stole everything they could, transfiguring the images further. Their interest helped a new generation of indigenous artists to explore new themes.
Now envision this kind of fertile back-and-forth happening in a hundred ways with a hundred cultures — the gifts from four centuries of intellectual exchange. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable. Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished when smallpox came ashore.
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The rekindled dispute over Indian origins has tended to mask a greater archaeological accomplishment: the enormous recent accumulation of knowledge about the American past. In almost every case, Indian societies have been revealed to be older, grander, and more complex than was thought possible even twenty years ago. Archaeologists not only have pushed back the date for humanity's entrance into the Americas, they have learned that the first large-scale societies grew up earlier than had been believed — almost two thousand years earlier, and in a different part of the hemisphere. And even those societies that had seemed best understood, like the Maya, have been placed in new contexts on the basis of new information.
. . . .
Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the "New World." Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.
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In college I read a one-volume history of the world by distinguished historian William H. McNeill. Called, simply enough, A World History, and published in 1967, it began with what McNeill and most other historians then considered the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq, home of Sumer, oldest of all complex polities; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and, in east central China, the valley of the Huang He, more familiar to Westerners as the Yellow River. If McNeill were writing A World History today, discoveries like those at Huaricanga would force him to add two more areas to the book. The first and better known is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century.*
Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world's most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.
*I am not criticizing McNeill for failing to include the Americas on his list of civilizations; he was simply reflecting the beliefs of his time. I would criticize World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity, a high school text published two decades later, in time for my son to encounter it. Referring exclusively to the "four initial centers" of civilization, this "world history" allocated just nine pages to the pre-Columbian Americas. The thesis of the book in your hands is that Native American history merits more than nine pages.