1.03.2009

1491: excerpts part 3

Here's one last group of excerpts from 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. Earlier posts here, here and here.
Until about 200 million years ago Eurasia and the Americas were lashed together in a single landmass that geologists call Pangaea. Pangaea broke into pieces, sending the continents drifting like barges across the ocean floor. For millions of years, the separate fragments of Pangaea had almost no communication. Evolution set their species spinning off on separate trajectories, and the flora and fauna of each land diverged so far from each other that the astounded Columbus remarked that "all the trees were as different from ours as day from night, and so the fruits, the herbage, the rocks, and all things."

Columbus was the first to see the yawning biological gap between Europe and the Americas. He was also one of the last to see it in pure form: his visit, as Alfred Crosby put it, initiated the process of knitting together the seams of Pangaea. Ever since 1492, the hemispheres have become more and more alike, as people mix the world's organisms into a global stew. Thus bananas and coffee, two African crops, become the principal agricultural exports of Central America; maize and manioc, domesticated in Mesoamerica and Amazonia respectively, return the favor by becoming staples in tropical Africa. Meanwhile, plantations of rubber trees, an Amazon native, undulate across Malaysian hillsides; peppers and tomatoes from Mesoamerica form the culinary backbones of Thailand and Italy; Andean potatoes lead Ireland to feast and famine; and apples, native to the Middle East, appear in markets from Manaus to Manila to Manhattan. Back in 1972, Crosby invented a term for this biological ferment: the Columbian Exchange.

By knitting together the seams of Pangaea, Columbus set off an ecological explosion of a magnitude unseen since the Ice Ages. Some species were shocked into decline (most prominent among them Homo sapiens, which in the century and a half after Columbus lost a fifth of its number, mainly to disease).

. . . .


When the newcomers moved west, they were preceded by a wave of disease and then a wave of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to tamp down, and it was followed by many aftershocks. "The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," wrote historian Stephen Pyne, "it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries." Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it.

By 1800 the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. If "forest primeval" means woodland unsullied by the human presence, Denevan has written, there was much more of it in the nineteenth century than in the seventeenth. The product of demographic calamity, the newly created wilderness was indeed beautiful. But it was built on Indian graves and every bit as much a ruin as the temples of the Maya.

At the end of 1491, Mann offers a theory that may surprise many people. He postulates that European settlers to what is now the US were influenced culturally by the native peoples they encountered.
According to Haudenosaunee [the indigenous name for the six nations that make up what Europeans call the Iroquois League] tradition, the alliance was founded centuries before Europeans arrived. Non-Indian researchers long treated this claim to antiquity with skepticism. The league, in their view, was inherently fragile and fissiparous; if it had been founded a thousand years ago, it would have broken up well before the Pilgrims. And there was little archaeological evidence that the league had existed for many centuries. But both traditional lore and contemporary astronomical calculations suggest that Haudenosaunee dates back to between 1090 and 1150 A.D.

The former date was calculated by Seneca historian Paula Underwood, who based her estimate on the tally of generations in oral records. The latter came from historian Mann and her Toledo colleague, astronomer Jerry Fields. The Five Nations recorded the succession of council members with a combination of pegs and carved images on long wooden cylinders called Condolence Canes. (Iroquois pictographs could convey sophisticated ideas, but functioned more as a mnemonic aid than a true writing system. The symbols were not conventionalized — that is, one person could not easily read a document composed by another.)

According to Mohawk historian Jake Swamp, 145 Tododahos spoke for the league between its founding and 1995, when Mann and Fields made their calculation. With this figure in hand, Mann and Fields calculated the average tenure of more than three hundred other lifetime appointments, including popes, European kings and queens, and U.S. Supreme Court justices. Multiplying the average by the number of Tododahos, the two researchers estimated that the alliance was probably founded in the middle of the twelfth century.

To check this estimate, Mann and Fields turned to astronomical tables. Before 1600, the last total solar eclipse observable in upstate New York occurred on August 31, 1142. If Mann and Fields are correct, this was the date on which Tododaho accepted the alliance. The Haudenosaunee thus would have the second oldest continuously existing representative parliaments on earth. Only Iceland's Althing, founded in 930 A.D., is older.

. . . .

Here, though, most historians have stopped. They have seen the Algonkian- and Iroquoian-speaking societies they encountered in the Northeast as too different from British societies to have exerted lasting changes on them. How could these hierarchical, acquisitive, market-oriented, monotheistic, ethnocentric newcomers have absorbed ideas from the egalitarian, reciprocal, noncapitalistic, pantheistic, ethnocentric natives? My suggestion that the Haudenosaunee could have had an impact on the American character is "naive," according to Alan Taylor, because it "minimizes the cultural divide consensual natives from coercive colonists." Perhaps so, but then skeptics must explain how the cultural divide between Indians and Spaniards, who did deeply influence each other, could have been so much smaller.

(The historian Francis Jennings has wondered how "Iroquois propagandists," as he calls them, can cite Benjamin Franklin's words as I did, given his oft-expressed "contempt for 'ignorant savages'...but people believe what they want to believe in the face of logic and evidence." The argument is baffling; it is like claiming that African-Americans had no impact on European-American culture, because the latter was racist and systematically oppressed the former.)

To Europeans, Indians were living demonstrations of wholly novel ways of being human — exemplary cases that were mulled over, though rarely understood completely, by countless Europeans. Colonists and stay-at-homes, intellectuals and commoners, all struggled to understand, according to the sociologist-historian Denys Delage, of Laval University in Quebec, "the very existence of these egalitarian societies, so different in their structure and social relationships than those of Europe." Montaigne, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine were among the writers who mulled over the differences between native and European ways of life; some pondered Indian criticism of European societies. The result, Delage explained, was to promote a new attitude of "cultural relativism" that in turn fed Enlightenment era debates "about the republican form of government, the rearing of children, and the ideals of freedom, equality, brotherhood, and the right to happiness."

Cultural influence is difficult to pin down in documents and concrete actions. Nevertheless it exists. In 1630 John Winthrop led what was then the largest party of would-be colonists from Britain — some seven hundred people — to Massachusetts, where they founded the city of Boston. As the expedition was under way, the deeply religious Winthrop explained his vision of what the new colony should become: "a city upon a hill." The city would be ruled by the principles of the Pilgrim's God. Among these principles: the Supreme Deity loves each person equally, but He did not intend them to play equal roles in society:
GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

Winthrop's ideal community, that is, was not a place of equal opportunity, nor a place where social distinctions were erased; the "mean" circumstances of the poor were "in all times" part of God's plan, and could not be greatly changed (if poor people got too far behind, the rich were supposed to help them). The social ideal was responsible adherence to religiously inspired authority, not democratic self-rule.

The reality turned out to be different. Instead of creating Winthrop's vision of an ordered society, the Pilgrims actually invented the raucous, ultra-democratic New England town meeting — a system of governance, the Dartmouth historian Colin Galloway observes, that "displays more attributes of Algonkian government by consensus than of Puritan government by the divinely ordained." To me, it seems unlikely that the surrounding Indian example had nothing to do with the change.

Accepting that indigenous societies influenced American culture opens up fascinating new questions. To begin with, it is possible that native societies could also have exercised a malign influence (this is why the subject is not necessarily "pious" or "romantic primitivism," as the Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has complained). Look to the Southeast, where, as Taylor has noted, "colonial societies sustained a slave system more oppressive than anything practiced in Europe" and "the slave-owners relied on Indians to catch runaways." There, too, the native groups, descended from Mississippian societies, were far more hierarchical and autocratically ruled than the Algonkian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups in the Northeast. As Gallay has documented, indigenous societies cooperated fully with the slave-trading system, sending war captives to colonists for sale overseas. In the Northeast, by contrast, the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee either killed or, more common, adopted captives; involuntary servitude, though it occurred, was strikingly rarer.

On the map, the division line between slave and non-slave societies occurs in Virginia, broadly anticipating the Mason-Dixon line that later split slave states from free. The repeated pattern doubtless has to do with geography — southeastern climate and soil favor plantation crops like tobacco and cotton. And southern colonists' preference for slavery presumably reflected their different ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. But can one readily dismiss the different Indian societies who lived in these places? And if not, to what extent are contemporary American conflicts over race the playing out, at least in part, of a cultural divide that came into being hundreds of years before Columbus?

18 comments:

James said...

A science geek nit-pick:

Pangaea broke into pieces, sending the continents drifting like barges across the ocean floor.

This isn't quite accurate. The contients did not drift across the ocean floor. They were pushed apart by the formation of new ocean floor, as new magma forced its way up through the mid-Atlantic ridge and caused the seafloor to spread. The Atlantic's floor is younger than Pangea.

Meanwhile, on the Pacific side of the Americas, the ocean floor was being forced down, under the continents. This caused the edge of the continent to wrinkle up, creating the Rockies and the Andes.

L-girl said...

A science geek nit-pick ... The contients did not drift across the ocean floor.

But this book isn't written for science geeks. :)

If Mann explicated every event and theory in this book, it would be 10,000 pages long and no one would ever read it.

Meanwhile, on the Pacific side of the Americas, the ocean floor was being forced down, under the continents. This caused the edge of the continent to wrinkle up, creating the Rockies and the Andes.

He mentions this in relation to why Peru has a coastal desert, something very unusual. I remember some great turn of phrase like "bunching up like a carpet under a chair leg". I'll see if I can find it.

James said...

If Mann explicated every event and theory in this book, it would be 10,000 pages long and no one would ever read it.

True, but (for example)

Pangaea broke into pieces, and the continents spread apart as the Atlantic ocean formed between them.

would be more accurate and only a two words longer. :)

L-girl said...

Perhaps, but you lose the beautiful image of "drifting like barges" and most readers are none the worse off for it.

deang said...

Another example of long-lasting Native American influence on American culture, one that I recently learned more about, is American Sign Language. Most of us have heard about the sign language that North American plains Indians used to communicate with each other. In recent years, I learned that it likely originated in the area I live in, south-central Texas, and spread north and probably also southwest and east, and some of its basic words (like for above and below) became some of the core words in the American Sign Language still used today (summarized in William Foster's Historic Native Peoples of Texas).

L-girl said...

Another example of long-lasting Native American influence on American culture, one that I recently learned more about, is American Sign Language.

Really?? Wow, I didn't know that at all. I used to know a decent amout of ASL, and really enjoyed learning it. (I can't sign anymore, because I have no opportunity to practice.) But I had no idea it had roots in Native American culture. Wow.

L-girl said...

Here it is.

"Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift. Leading South America's slow, grinding march toward Australia, its coastline hits the ocean floor and crumples up like a carpet shoved into a chairleg. Just offshore the impact pushes the plate on the bottom of the Pacific down and under the advancing coast, creating a trench almost five miles deep..."

James said...

Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift...

Now that is pretty good. ;)

deang said...

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was not the main source of ASL, but it did contribute some signs and shares some signs with the European sign language systems that ASL grew out of. I think my wording above made it sound like PISL was the source of ASL, when it was only one of several influences.

L-girl said...

Now that is pretty good. ;)

Re floating barges, I will get so captured by a lovely phrase or an evocative image, that I'll forgive all kinds of imprecise meanings. I admit that.

L-girl said...

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was not the main source of ASL, but it did contribute some signs and shares some signs with the European sign language systems that ASL grew out of. I think my wording above made it sound like PISL was the source of ASL, when it was only one of several influences.

I didn't know there was any connection.

I'd like to know more about native peoples' influence on the dominant culture.

James said...

Re floating barges, I will get so captured by a lovely phrase or an evocative image, that I'll forgive all kinds of imprecise meanings. I admit that.

Given the rest of the writing you quoted, I'm sure he could have come up with an image as evocative as the barges one, that more accurately reflected the situation.

Like I said, it's a nit-pick, but it rankles when a book aimed at clearing up misconceptions in one field of science promotes misconceptions in another.

L-girl said...

it rankles when a book aimed at clearing up misconceptions in one field of science promotes misconceptions in another.

I can see that. I'm the same way about topics I know a lot about. And you're right, he's a very good writer, so he could work more to get a better image, or use a mundane image but get it right.

He does say he's taken criticism from specialists and experts in various fields, and on the second edition, worked harder to convey the terms of these specialized debates more accurately.

Larry Gambone said...

Just like to mention that I have done some follow-up on a couple of Mann's sources, most particularly Ann Roosevelt's work on the Amazon civilizations and the work done on the civilization in the Mato Grosso. It's all very impressive and after reading this extra material it is very hard to deny the existence of these civilizations.

gomonik said...


At the end of 1491, Mann offers a theory that may surprise many people. He postulates that European settlers to what is now the US were influenced culturally by the native peoples they encountered.


Have you read A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul's newest book? He makes the case that Canada is at heart an aboriginal society, and that our denial of this fact keeps us from developing a true sense of ourselves as a nation. It's very interesting reading.

L-girl said...

I haven't read it. Sounds very interesting - thanks.

A Conformer said...

Hey, L, just found this skimming through your "what I'm reading" section, and I wanted to thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I'm fascinated by the subject, and many times while traveling got the feeling that there is so much more to ancient culture there than what we know. To give the easiest example: as a layman (well, tourist...) traveling in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, you get the idea that Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Tikal and Palenque were the greatest cities of the Mayan culture. But that doesn't make sense- what are the chances, with the very deep and systematic destruction the Spanish brought to the area's cities, that the biggest, most important cities are the ones that survived (to use the term loosely) till this day? Plus, we know that most Spanish cities were founded on living "Mayan" cities, the big stone cathedrals built from pyramides that were demolished (in some cathedrals you can still see some bricks with Mayan carvings on them), and so on. Plus, Diego De Landa, the Bishop that burnt most of the books, and with it a lot of the knowledge of the area's inhabitants, later "regretted" it and wrote a book about the culture, beliefs and way of life there, that for years was a source for what we (again, I use that term for the laymen/tourists/popular believers) know. How are we supposed to trust those kinds of sources?
Again, what we don't know is so much bigger than what we do know, and if you pay enough attention you can figure that out even from the signs and tour guides' explanations in the archaelogical sites, not exactly the most reliable, researched, academic source. So thank you. I'm considering ignoring my decision to never buy new books (instead trading or borrowing) yet one more time, to read this one.

L-girl said...

Ofer, I'm so glad!

I have an abiding life-long fascination with ancient cultures of all types, and a deep love of those from the Americas.

This is an excellent book, you'll love it.