I’ve noticed lately that some on the side of amnesty for lawbreakers, including illegal aliens, are trying to equate Americans—and apparently they intend to include all Americans not of purely Amerindian blood—of being “illegal aliens” in order to prove a point. Pay no attention to the fact that very few of those claiming “Native American” status are untainted by the blood of the evil European interlopers. It is no more rational to assert that Caucasian Americans are “illegal aliens” than it is to assert that the Iberians are “illegal aliens” for booting the Moslem Horde out of the peninsula after 800 years of struggle.
However, in the minds of many, the myth that the pre-Contact populations lived as one cohesive, widespread, yet happy family of tree-hugging environmentalists and earth-loving “noble savages” persists. Regrettably, the facts certainly do not support this position.
Technological advances not only define a culture, but they mark important steps in human and societal evolution. The European Bronze Age began in approximately 2800 B.C.; the Iron Age circa 800 B.C. This technology had spread to northern Europe by 500 BC (the same time frame as the Golden Age of Athens). Poured concrete was in use by around 200 B.C. The Aztecs, arguably the most technologically advanced pre-Columbian culture, didn’t enter the Bronze Age until after 1200 A.D.
The written Hellenic language—and by “language” I mean, symbols for particular phonetic sounds or letters, and not merely pictures—made its appearance circa 1400 B.C.; Italic languages around 700 BC, and Germanic language a bit later, around 160 AD. Pre-Columbian America and Mesoamerica had no written language, with the possible exception of the Maya, who had a system of glyphs—not generally accepted as a written “language.” By contrast, over a hundred years before Columbus arrived in the New World, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1321) and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (1387) had been published.
The European Renaissance began in 1400, and by the time Columbus set sail for the New World, Europe had produced such masterpieces as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, da Vinci’s The Annunciation, Tommaso’s The Betrayal of Christ, and Lippi’s Madonna and Child. In 1503, da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa; by 1508, Michelangelo had begun painting the Sistine Chapel. While Mesoamerican art was very detailed, most notably some of the Mayan murals, it was not on a par with the artwork of the Renaissance—even the early Renaissance. North American art at that time seems to be limited to textiles, pottery, and crude cave drawings.
Before 1492, pre-Columbian cultures had developed rudimentary percussion instruments, rattles, and a few very primitive wind instruments. Their music was primarily for ceremonial purposes, and in the case of the Aztec and Inca, primarily for rites of ceremonial human sacrifice. In contrast, by the late 1400s, Europeans were using instruments such as the harp, the lute, the vielle, the flute-like recorder, bagpipes, and the pipe organ, among others. Music in Europe was not merely for purposes of religious ceremony; the troubadour introduced secular music and poetry to Europeans 200-300 years before the Renaissance, but the Renaissance brought about widespread use of these instruments for secular purposes.
By 1492, Europeans had mastered the wheel, domesticated oxen and horses, used heavy wheeled wagons to move goods, had invented the windmill and were using various iterations of “Archimedes’s screw” to move water. They utilized a magnetic compass, and beginning around 1200 BC, had begun to use crude stellar navigation techniques. With the development of the caravel and their advancing knowledge of distance navigation, the Europeans were able to voyage ever further from their shores—and return to them. The pre-Columbian natives had no means of conveyance capable of feats such as crossing the ocean, and no means of long-distance navigation.
Pre-Columbian Americans had not yet invented the wheel—an important step in human evolution. The pre-Columbian Indian method of ground transportation for himself and his goods was, for the most part, his own two feet, although those near water did utilize canoes or rafts. While many Mesoamerican tribes and a few North American tribes lived in settlements and were therefore able to acquire and store possessions, the majority of North American Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle that limits leisure time and the ability to acquire personal possessions. History shows that the Plains Indians did use travois (two sticks lashed together that allowed a man to drag more weight that he could carry) to transport objects that couldn’t be carried in their hands or on their backs, but had no livestock to pull those travois save dogs. Some historians argue that these Indians had a simpler lifestyle and were uninterested in material possessions; the reality is that they had no means of maintaining many possessions in excess of what was necessary for survival.
Although the Europeans were undoubtedly much more advanced than the pre-Columbian Indians, it does not necessarily follow that the Europeans were morally and ethically superior. Nevertheless, that argument can certainly be made by contrasting some practices and cultural behaviors. After any factual review, it would be difficult to support the claim that the persistent perception of a “noble savage” is based in reality.
By 1492, human sacrifice in Europe was a distant memory—most archeological reports indicate that the practice ended in the first century B.C. Human sacrifice continued to be a common practice in the Mesoamerica, however. According to anthropologist Michael Harner, it is possible that the Aztecs sacrificed as many as 250,000 people annually. Human sacrifice was not limited to the Aztecs—it was practiced with equal enthusiasm by the Maya, the Mixtec, and the Inca.
North American Indians were not immune to barbarism and human sacrifice, either. The mound builders of Cahokia appear to have engaged in ritual human sacrifice, as evidenced by the skeletons unearthed in Mound 72; archaeological evidence points to human sacrifice among the Pawnee and Iroquois tribes, as well.
More confirmation of what could be considered barbarism and questionable moral and ethical behavior stems from the widespread cannibalism perpetrated by the New World Indians, especially the Indians of Mesoamerica. Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1585) in The Conquest of New Spain, wrote of rampant cannibalism among the natives he and his fellow conquistadores came across in their trek to Tenochtitlan. His account was corroborated by many others, including Diego Muñoz Camargo in his History of Tlaxcala. An account by explorer Amerigo Vespucci, published circa 1504, tells of Indians in Brazil who brought home captives from war not as slaves, but as dinner—Vespucci averred that human flesh was a “common article of diet.” Again, North American Indians were not immune: early French and English explorers and settlers reported cannibalism in tribes from coast to coast, among them the Iroquois, Mohawk, Algonquin, Micmac, Assiniboine, Cree, Fox, Chippewa, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Sioux, Winnebago, Caddo, Karankawa, Kiowa, Tonkawa, Comanche, Tlingit, and Ute. In 1994, the Archaeological Institute of America published findings proving cannibalism among the Chaco Canyon Anasazi, as well.
The New World Indians also practiced scalping prior to the first contact, despite the best efforts of many historians to assign blame for the practice to the Europeans. Anthropologists found evidence in the remains of the 486 victims of the Crow Creek massacre, an event in pre-Columbian 14th century AD in South Dakota, proving that Indians not only scalped their enemies, but decapitated them, cut out their tongues, and otherwise dismembered them. Early European settlers reported that the Huron, Iroquois, Chichimec, and Muskhogean tribes all scalped enemy warriors. It is no surprise that the Europeans labeled the natives “savages.”
Interestingly, very few of those who eagerly assign blame to all Caucasians for the mantle of perpetual victimhood that is so proudly worn by so many for no reason other than their ancestry are willing to admit or discuss these barbarities—and such information is certainly germane to any discussion of how Europeans viewed the inhabitants of the New World and concomitantly, how that affected the status of Native Americans in North American society.
In any case, the western hemisphere before first contact was hardly a place of peace and serenity, and the pre-Columbians were not environmentalists. The “noble savages” inhabiting the continents were in constant strife, and violence abounded. In short, life for most of the New World Indians was, while not necessarily solitary, almost definitely “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The “pristine myth” has been solidly debunked; scientists now acknowledge that the pre-Columbian aboriginal populations intentionally burned huge tracts of land for their own purposes, significantly altering the land and the ecosystems in which they lived. Warring tribes fought over territory for game, religious practices and belief systems. They used fire indiscriminately, not only to deprive the enemy of hiding places, but to channel game into controlled areas where that game could be more easily killed en masse, and they left devastated landscapes behind them. Many historians believe that reforestation, especially in the Eastern United States, should be attributed to the advent of the European settlers, who interrupted the ecological mayhem perpetrated by the aboriginal tribes.
Is it reasonable to imagine, had Europeans not discovered the New World and made known its existence to civilized societies, that the aboriginal populations would have continued their warlike, nomadic, almost pre-historic existence? No, it is not. Had the European influence not impacted the development of the various Paleo-Indian tribes, would they have continued as before, never advancing, never creating, and never evolving? One would hope not.
A final note: Americans provide for the taxpayer-subsidized continuation of a society that under normal circumstances would have faced extinction had it chosen not to assimilate, as the North American aboriginal population has chosen.
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