Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Columbus Day Reflections

Happy “There Goes the Neighborhood Day.” Before Christopher Columbus crashed the party on this day 519 years ago, the people who really discovered America were doing just fine. This comes out loud and clear in two books: Jack Weatherford’s 1989 “Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World,” and Charles Mann’s 2005 “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.”

Essentially, say both authors, Indian society was far more populous and sophisticated than the white man’s histories would have us believe. For starters, most of the food we consume derives from Indian plant husbandry and processing (potatoes, corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and chocolate, just for starters), as does countless ways of preparing it (such as barbeque). As for the shirts on our backs, you have Indian cotton technology to thank for that.

Food and clothing - pretty major accomplishments. Throw in advanced astronomy, mathematics, road-building, monument-building, terra-forming, urban planning, metallurgy, pharmacology, and - oh, yes - democracy, and suddenly we are left with the stunning proposition that Indian society was not only a lot more advanced than we thought, but may have attained a higher level of civilization than European society of the day.

Okay, the wheel was unknown to the Indians (though there are exceptions), but likewise personal hygiene was unknown to the Europeans. The bottom line, says Charles Mann, is your typical Indian living in 1491 was better off than your typical European living that same year. Better fed, better clothed, better housed, better looked after. Taller, healthier, with a degree of personal freedom unknown in the Old World, with a voice in his (and in a lot of instances her) society’s affairs.

Get ready for the eye-opener: Both authors contend that the democratic values we take for granted today derive from the Indians. No one in Europe was even talking about such things prior to first contact. Then, Thomas More came across Amerigo Vespucci’s reports of his life amongst Indians, and - surprise, surprise - the 1516 publication of Utopia.

Soon after came the Enlightenment, with thinkers such as Rousseau idealizing the “noble savage.” But while Europe was merely talking about representative government and the rights of man, Indian society was actually doing it. Your average white settler took note. So did our Founding Fathers. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were profoundly influenced by the Iroquois Confederation.

The stupidest idea in all history - an Old World concept - is that nearly all men and women are born decidedly unequal. That it is the natural order that just about the entire human race be exploited and condemned to lives of overwork, hardship, and squalor, all in the service of a select few. There was no way either Europe or those who settled in the New World would have turned that thought around - much less put something less stupid into practice - without first bearing witness to a society that actually practiced more civilized values.
New World ideas and technology, not to mention loot, would transform the Old World and kick-start the Industrial Revolution, contends Jack Weatherford. The Indians were not so lucky. According to the accounts of the first European adventurers, the Mississippi Valley, the eastern seaboard, the Amazon basin, Mexico, and the Andes were densely populated. These were flourishing and highly developed agricultural societies that could have easily swatted away any white man incursions.

The next waves of Europeans encountered something radically different. The white man’s diseases had preceded them and fanned out. The Mississippi Valley was virtually devoid of human life. The eastern seaboard lay largely empty. Nature reclaimed the Amazon basin. The great empires of the Aztec and Inca collapsed in the onslaught of European microbes, easy prey for the Spanish.

The Indians that these Europeans encountered were survivors of the greatest catastrophe in human history. The few, the traumatized. We have no way of knowing how far Indian society would have advanced on its own. A strange new race of people was setting up camp on abandoned Indian settlements and plantations. White man would be writing the history books.  

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