Saturday, March 3, 2012

1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus

The book aims to change the popular view about the native American people before the advent of the Europeans. (I do not think Indians are the right term to denote them, despite the author’s  rationale.) There are two popular views about the native Americans: 1) uncultivated primitive people with a wretched level of technology, or 2) the noble savages. Roughly, my view about them was aligned with the second category, even though my view differs a lot from the vanilla version of the noble savages. I thought of them as people who gained wisdom to live with the nature, rather than being ignorant of living in the capitalistic ways.

The big questions are as follows: 1) was America really a vacant place with small populace? 2) were the native Americans technologically behind the old world? 3) did the Europeans enlighten the native Americans, leading to a better way of life?

Of course, the answers to all those questions are NO. The population of the Americas before Columbus is an on-going issue of debate, but many evidences show that the continent was rather densely populated. The massacre by the European diseases was of a magnitude much bigger than usually imagined. It is almost sure that the population was reduced to less than half the original size solely due to the epidemic. In some extreme cases like Plymouth, the death ratio was roughly 95%. I am sure nobody these days buys into the rationale of the Europeans settling in a vacant continent, but the take-away should be realizing the magnitude of the tragedy done by the separately developed diseases and viruses. As the author says, if the Americas had had their own hoofed creatures like pigs, the pandemic would have been two-directional instead, killing much of the population in Eurasia as well.

About the second question, the author’s exemplification with the case of plow is very cogent. Before they adopted the Chinese version, the European plow was extremely inefficient, even though it is so hard to imagine that the Europeans could not discover the simple twitch. The same goes for the American civilizations. They had wheels, but only for children’s toys! Though unimaginable to us who are accustomed to the use of wheels, things can happen that way. Another insight is, like anything else, technological and scientific advancement is also relative. For example, the super-complex alloying technology the Incans used for their gold ornaments are simply amazing. As an even more important example, the North American natives’ political systems of having each gender taking care of different affairs of social life, is at least much more advanced than the political systems of most European countries in the 19th century.

The answer to the final question is apparent when we have answers for the first two questions. Ben Franklin wrote the following: Native Americans who were kidnapped early in their lives who were educated in the European way, will desert into the wild once they know of the way of living of her native people. On the other hand, European people who were kidnapped young to live among the natives, even though they learn about the European way of living, will not change the way of their lives. Even though they are taken by force to join their European relatives, they will seek opportunities to escape and return to the native American’s way of life. One might recall the move Dance with Wolves. The reason behind this phenomenon would be apparent: human beings seek happiness by nature.

Even though this book aims to repel the myth of noble savage concept of native Americans, I believe we are back to about the same position in the altitude/latitude. The native American people, living by themselves for thousands of years, acquired a different way of living - which might be less desirable for some of us, but more so for some others. Understanding and accepting differences is the least we human beings must be able to do to call ourselves sentient beings, I believe.

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