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Native America - Prehistory and Survival

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Nicholas James audits the societies and civilisations decimated by the arrival of Europeans - and tells how, against the odds, elements from them have survived.

Among the various Native American ways of life that the conquistadors described, anthropologists recognise successive types of social and economic organisation through which civilisation had developed. Review of archaeologists', historians' and ethnographers' findings reveals the diversity of traditions disrupted after 1492. Prehistory also accounts for the Native Americans' fatal susceptibility to the new arrivals. Our aim here, then, is to range beyond the Aztecs, discussed in the previous article, in search of the broader patterns of Native American history, both prior to contact and since.

The New World was an ancient palimpsest. Cortes, in Mexico, and Pizarro, in Peru, discovered the largest and most complex societies in Native American history, the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas, respectively. Elsewhere in Mexico, they found societies smaller but stratified, like the Aztecs and Incas, by distinctions of authority and privilege. Columbus, in Hispaniola, and his colleagues, around the southern Caribbean, discovered other large populations paying tribute to chiefs whose power was less absolute – but which could be bolstered in the conquerors' interests. In Lower Central America, Brazil and southern North America, there flourished many smaller societies with institutions of yet more modest scope. All these peoples lived in towns or villages. By contrast, there lived non-sedentary peoples, comparatively unfettered by inherited status or rank, thinly distributed in remoter parts of the West Indies, in southern South America, and across most of western and northern North America. While many of these latter followed ways of life broadly similar to those of their Ice Age ancestors, the empires of the Aztecs and Incas were rather less than a century old when the Spanish arrived. To the shock of all, every native society was rapidly decimated, more or less regardless of its way of life. This frightful disruption helps to explain why the invaders took so little notice of American culture. Had more listened to and watched native life, America could have taught us much about human relations, our images of ourselves, and our temporary places on the earth. Thanks to the survivors' determination, we could still learn.

By way of broad generalisation, a pair of philosophical principles may indicate some of the quality of native culture. Many American Indian religions teach that we are wrapped together in a multi-dimensional cycle. One key to understanding this belief is that their gods were, and are, so many aspects of an integrated world. Accordingly, the objectives of prayer are harmony or proper adjustment; and these qualities are commonly valued in social life too. Not, of course, that harmony is or was always maintained; but the dichotomy of moral and physical ecology is less marked than in European culture; and few Native Americans, by comparison, are so intensely concerned with the individuated person. Life – individual and collective – is often thought of as a journey along which we become, at once, increasingly articulate but potentially further adrift from each other. So our goal (we are told) should be to compensate by learning to acknowledge the social and physical dependence into which we were born.

A remarkable feature of Native American culture is the degree of symbolic and moral convergence or homogeneity among socially and geographically disparate peoples. Does this reflect a common history; And if so, does this help to explain the fate that ensued from European contact and conquest for native bands and empires alike?

Their vaunted barbarian ancestry notwithstanding, the Aztecs also claimed to inherit a 'great tradition', pretending that their capital, Tenochtitlan, was modelled on 'Tula' (Tollan), capital of the 'golden age' Toltecs – cosmopolis, hearth of the arts, the very epitome of civilisation. In different senses, the Aztecs probably meant both Tula and Teotihuacan. The Toltecs flourished between about 950 and 1175. Their influence was felt throughout Middle America and even beyond – in one region and another, it was probably warlike, mercantile or deliberately borrowed. Most archaeologists concur that the Toltec capital was Tula, in Hidalgo, north of the Aztec heartland, where some 35,000 people lived around a precinct of ceremonial buildings. Yet the Aztecs were well aware too of Teotihuacan, much closer to Tenochtitlan. For here lay the ruined pyramids, houses and workshops of a city of 200,000, developed extraordinarily rapidly from about 100 BC', and abandoned equally suddenly 850 years later. Like the Toltecs and the Aztecs themselves, Teotihuacan's influence was far flung but, in contrast, there is little evidence of war until later on.

Social organisation in the three cities, Teotihuacano, Toltec and Aztec, varied, and » did the mechanisms of their influence among other nations; but historians trace a common tradition of cosmic symbolism in sculpture and painting. No doubt, these symbols formulated a coherent view of the world and were used for legitimising comprehensive but autonomous authority; but that Teotihuacan and Tula, in turn, were abandoned – and that Aztec power was under strain – implies strategic and ideological limits to the efficacy of these states.

The Mexican 'great tradition' related closely to the neighbouring Maya – indeed one interpretation places the original Toltec capital at Chichen Itza, Yucatan. The Maya. flourished, during the First Millennium, in a network of city states, relations among which – both peaceable and warlike – are now the subject of' major breakthroughs in epigraphic decipherment. Yet it remains an archaeological mystery as to why most Maya centres collapsed during the ninth century – soil degradation; popular disillusion with the rulers' claims of access to the enveloping spirits of time deduced by their astronomers; perhaps a combination of such causes? The conquistadors found the Maya thriving, but in smaller towns and principalities.

The Inca empire laid claim to as many as seven million people among the Central Wides and along the adjacent coasts. The administrative and military structure seems to have been large both at Cuzco, the capital, and in the provinces. State ideology was pervasive but, unlike the Aztecs', the Inca empire was a. territorial organisation directly involved with developing, collecting, storing and redistributing economic resources throughout its arduous terrain. The Incas and their predecessors were ambitious and effective landscape engineers ('Andes' – Spanish andenes, steps – refers to their agricultural terracing). In contrast, again, to the Aztecs, the Incas attempted to regulate their subjects minutely. Every male householder was liable to periodic labour tax or corvee. Yet, although ford these purposes they maintained quantitative data bases, the Incas lacked writing. They developed a network of urban centres, but most had very small resident populations. Theirs was a rural civilisation.

Empires are susceptible to imperialism: the very coherence of Inca organisation played into the hands of the conquerors, who soon recognising the most general social, economic and bureaucratic principles of Inca government, sought simply to replace the top tier of native authority with their own in order to take the system over intact. Conquest was all the easier on account of a crisis in royal succession. In 1525, the Emperor Huayna Capac and his nominated heir were killed by an alien infection – probably diffused from the conquistadors in Mexico. Dispute over succession between Atahualpa and his half brother, Huascar, was exacerbated by disagreement over royal estate inheritance. By the time they arrived on the scene, in 1552, Atahualpa had become emperor and Pizarro's expedition was able to exploit native conflict just as had Cortes in Mexico. The Inca emperor was executed by the Spaniards shortly after their arrival. Yet the pace of Pizarro's conquest was slower than Cortes owing to both the terrain and divisions among the conquistadors themselves; and the Incas retained or even extended a large domain in freedom until 1572. Nor did the Spanish succeed in maintaining the native economy intact, partly because European concepts of landscape management were inappropriate in the Andes.

As with the Aztecs, the received history holds that Inca imperialism began suddenly, in the fifteenth century; but this too neglects an ancient tradition of complex and large-scale organisation among the Andes. The archaeology of the Wari culture (c.700-1000), in particular, reveals many features typical of the Incas: long stretches of the latters' famous road system were probably built on Wari foundations and, like the Incas, Wari maintained a network of depots throughout its domain. The Incas may have adopted their rules of royal succession and inheritance of rule from the coastal empire of Chimor (which they conquered with a huge army in the 1460s). The architecture and distribution of the Mochica seems, in turn, to anticipate Chimor and its conquests by a millennium; and recent discovery of a massive temple and adjacent warehouses in the same region show that the 'foundations' of the Andean state may antedate the Mochica by 2,000 years.

Tons of earth have been sifted and much ink spent in working out the origins of such societies. The search has concentrated in Middle America and the Central Andes but it leads well beyond, to regions where stability was achieved – not always peacefully – but without developing institutions of government disembedded from the political and ethical checks and balances of kin-based organisation. For many workers, the guiding concept has been 'chiefdom'. Perhaps the most complex chiefdoms, at the eve of the Spanish invasion, were the Chibcha of northern Colombia, who were said to be mobilising armies of 50,000 for campaigns against each other, of the kind that had brought the Aztecs and Incas to power. Among the network of Mississippian communities, in North America, the town of Cahokia grew, around immense ceremonial earthworks, to a population estimated at more than 25,000 in about AD 1200. In the West, a century earlier, the Pueblo villages in Chaco Canyon reached their greatest size – partly, perhaps, in connection with trade links to the Toltecs. The great amount of ceremonial architecture here is puzzling: does it reflect political or ethical 'strain' at the brink between egalitarian order and an emergent hierarchy?

Trying, then, to distinguish the oscillating balance of power in cases such as Chaco and the Chibcha from Mexico or Peru, prehistorians have sought critical factors that would account for either acquiescence with or demand for new forms of government. They tend to invoke environmental variables such as the long term unpredictability of weather on the Peruvian coast or the limited distribution of productive soils along rivers such as the Coatzacoalcos, in Mexico: if (runs the argument), dependent on a particular farming regime for its food, population approached local carrying capacity, then the majority may have submitted to authorities organising schemes such as irrigation (developed, large scale, in Peru and Mexico by 500 BC) or the warehouses in Peru (mentioned above – note the association with a temple). Art and architecture, it is suggested, may have been used in rites which inculcated civic disciplines of unprecedented public scope – hence, for instance, the Olmecs' monuments, their sculpture, and their symbolic pottery, made and diffused in Mexico (c.1000 BC). War, too, may have driven people to fall in under new authorities: gruesome pictures of victims have been found at Cerro Sechin, Peru (dated to c.1000 BC), and Monte Alban, Mexico (c.300 BC) – both substantial settlements adjacent to extensive farms which may have tempted rivals.

Agriculture is a critical factor in that it alters society's environment by 'selecting out' most species in its vicinity. Hence agrarian communities need to guard against conditions, such as drought or enemy jealousy, which are less acute for less specialised ways of life. The prehistory of American farming provides an instructive contrast to the usual account for the Old World: cultivation began at about the same time, roughly 7000 BC; but the development from small scale gardens to agricultural landscapes was much more gradual. For this, there are at least three technical reasons. First, the earliest American gardens were not exclusively devoted to staple foods: among their crops were gourds, grown as vessels, and chilli, as a condiment. Second, certain important plants – above all, maize – had to undergo several anatomic changes before they became especially productive. Third; except for the Andean camelids (principally llamas), there were no animals in America suitable for herding and haulage (so every pyramid – and most early colonial churches – were built by human muscle alone). Nevertheless, the Europeans found three sets of agricultural complexes in America: the most widely diffused was based on maize, beans and squash, a 'triumvirate' probably developed in Mexico by 1500 BC; by the same time, a system based on potatoes and grain was cultivated at complementary levels in the steep Central Andes; and, perhaps as early as 4000 BC, a system based on manioc (cassava) was developed in the Amazon and Orinoco basins.

Yet by no means was farming the sole condition for chiefdoms. Fishing was important in lowland South America and the very mainstay for the big villages of the North West Coast, large sedentary and socially ranked groups lived by systematic gathering, fishing and hunting. Similar strategies provided much of the diet upon which the great Adena and Hopewell earthworks were built in the Mid West, some 2,000-3,000 years ago; and, like various other groups encountered by the Europeans further east, these people were not fully sedentary. Fish probably made up a lot of the Peruvian coastal diet too, even among the most complex of the prehistoric chiefdoms.

Nor do most theories of social evolution account adequately for the diversity of organisation encountered by the explorers among sedentary communities in America. 'Chiefdom' and 'state' are broad categories. For example, while there was little to surprise the conquistador about daily domestic life among ordinary Aztecs in city or countryside, Pueblo Indians were found to occupy flats aligned along squares, and, in villages around Lake Ontario and in Amazonia, only a few longhouses, or but a single one, could accommodate everybody. These varying arrangements reflected so many different customs for living, playing, growing up, working, or defence.

Hopewell and other cultures of eastern North America serve to show that the distinction between sedentary and non-sedentary life was a matter of degree; but, at the time of Encounter, there were vast territories across which people moved throughout the year, harvesting plants and game as nature provided. Since few Europeans appreciated it, it is worth pointing out that, in some ways, the logistical demands were greater than those for villagers and farmers. Most of these non-sedentary peoples had lived thus for millennia. Before the development of villages and fields, all Native Americans had done so. Although many Indian religious practices, past and present, have been interpreted as agricultural fertility rites, it is likely that their roots tap the knowledge and disciplines of roving gatherer-hunters – and that these traditions engendered the holistic view of the world. Depending on the resources to which they were adapted and on their fortunes from generation to generation, bands of relatives and friends would vary in size, exploiting larger or smaller ranges of territory. Most groups were very small; but, at certain times of year, they would meet others in order to work together on harvests or hunts and for the sake of sociability and ceremony. These people, again, lived by various customs. Their way of life flourished in southern Patagonia and parts of the Arctic (Inuit – 'Eskimos') almost up to living memory, and, in parts of Amazonia, to today (although some of the latter groups may only have adopted this life in response to European colonisation). Thanks to diffusion of horses from the European colonies, buffalo hunting thrived on the Plains of North America as never before until, in turn, these lands were cleared by the advancing colonists.

In order to understand why so little of all these traditions survives, we must consider first how America was colonised by its natives, and, only second, the arrival of the Europeans. Most Native Americans display their origins in their faces: they share dark eyes, and dark, straight hair with East Asians; many groups have a degree of that epicanthic folding which makes the eyes look narrow; and, also like East Asians, many have bold cheek bones. In contrast, however, many Native Americans sport large noses. Other native biological characteristics are less obvious. Most striking is the pattern of blood groups, which sets them apart from Old World populations; and this is the principal evidence for arguing that the American genotype is a 'founder effect', that the great majority of Native Americans are ultimately descended from an East Asian group that was too small to carry a fully representative sample of the mother population's gene pool. Biologists can also help to explain why that colony was so small by calibrating variation in blood serum protein and teeth against standard rates of change for these characteristics.

Measured thus, most Native Americans seem to fall into a group which must be about 20,000 years old (similar results have been derived from linguistic evidence; among the few exceptions to either pattern are the Inuit, who colonised much later). Indeed, it is likely that a group entering North America then would have been small, for as archaeologists have shown, at that time eastern Siberia supported only hunting bands. Geographers confirm that the Bering Straits, between Alaska and Siberia, were dry land then, while on the other hand the Rocky Mountains were blocked by ice; and that as the Ice Age waned, so the Straits were flooded and passes from Alaska to Canada thawed. Hence a few bands of marooned Siberians could explore the rest of North America and beyond; but (the crux), thereafter, the Straits impeded exchange between Asia and America.

So now we only need archaeological evidence from east or south of Alaska to match this hypothetical account; but that proves elusive. All agree, on the basis of hunting tools from Arizona and New Mexico, that America was occupied by about 12,000 BC; and that the colonists had reached southern Patagonia by 9000; and most now accept that the remains of a camp at Monte Verde, Chile prove that, indeed, initial colonisation in the north took place several millennia before 12,000 BC; but controversy persists over other finds from Monte Verde and from isolated sites throughout America, which suggest occupation by 30,000 BC at the latest. Certainly, the later the initial colonisation, the more remarkable was the speed of southward migration.

Whatever the outcome over this 'Early Man' chestnut, the orthodoxy holds that the great majority of Native Americans and their ancient cultures are derived from a small founding population whose descendants were isolated from the Old World until 1492. The main exceptions to this pattern are in western North America and the Arctic – so that brief contact between Inuit and Norse, c.1000, may not have posed the danger that Columbus brought to the rest of the 50 million Americans by seeking the Orient in the West Indies. (Such population estimates are very tricky. A figure of this order is widely – but not universally – accepted.)

The principal feature of Encounter between Europeans and Native Americans was the same everywhere: as the new colonies settled, native populations collapsed. By the mid-seventeenth century, native population had fallen by about 90 per cent. The native West Indians were all but extinct. In some remote continental interiors, the eventual decline may have been limited to 60 per cent. The total toll was equivalent to the loss of nearly a seventh of the world's population as it had stood in 1492.

Why did it happen? Since the Ice Age, most of America had been isolated not only from the Old World's cultural history but also its microbiology. Europe unwittingly introduced diseases to which the Americans had had no previous exposure such as smallpox, measles and typhus. Indeed, there is no good evidence for any serious plagues in pre-Columbian America. That may be thanks, in part, to paucity of livestock and, in part, to the recency of dense populations such as the Aztecs (previous urban conditions were different). The physical and moral suffering was terrible. Epidemics tore out from the colonies. Many English saw empty countryside as God's gift – but it was the effect of pioneering predecessors. There were other causes of death, including the social, psychological and economic effects of the epidemics; but the diseases themselves were the main killer; and colonial policies for congregating the scattered survivors only encouraged contagion in subsequent outbreaks. For all this, the Europeans were responsible; but they were not the only bearers of doom. Africans too – enslaved to replace the Indians – bore alien diseases to America.

How, considering the loss of most of its bearers, has any Native American culture lasted? Indeed, it is difficult to find any custom that lacks the marks of colonialism. All the great public institutions, for which the pyramids stood, were obliterated by contact, conquest and conversion. European exploitation of labour disrupted Indian technology and economics. Whole ways of life vanished in dispersal and miscegenation, or evaporated in ambivalent apathy and alcohol. This is still going on. Yet many groups preserved and developed their language, knowledge and skills around the hearth, in the work group, and in local ritual. For cultures comprise not only the substance of tradition but also strategies for change: their total population now approaching 30 million, Native Americans have survived – are surviving – by dint of selective accommodation and resistance to their new circumstances.

Rounded up into new model towns, survivors of many groups adapted Catholic customs of godparenthood and confraternity as means of mutual support. Some managed to 'compartmentalise' their activities, hiding pagan customs behind facades of approved practice – not everyone understood the duplicity. In Mexico and the Andes, leaders became adept in Spanish law at challenging both whites and each other. The Europeans brought some economic opportunities too: for example, before turning families and peoples against each other, the fur trade made for brief prosperity among many chieftains; horses were mentioned above. There were even cases where Indian culture enveloped Europeans: in many ways, the races were hard to tell apart in later colonial New Mexico; and Paraguayans are bilingual in Spanish and Guarani.

Native American history, since 1492, is also marked by rebellion, rejection, revivalism and the assertion of civil and human rights. The first cycle of insurgency (for instance, north-western Mexico, 1541-42 and 1562, Virginia, 1622-36 and 1644-45) was quelled by viruses if not guns; but, in Chile, lowly Araucanian resistance to outsiders' domination persisted from Inca times to the present century. Tourists are sometimes surprised to find barriers across their way to an Indian village: voluntary apartheid is a long-standing strategy among many communities. Indeed, calls for cultural revival arose early. The 'Illness Dance', in Peru, anticipated the gods' rejection of God and Spain in the 1560s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, North American prophets promised their peoples that the whites would disappear if traditional values were revived. Messages from Christian-style idols fanned liberation war among the Maya during the nineteenth century. More successful than most of these movements and measures have been campaigns using European legal and political methods in support of personal, communal and economic rights: western Bolivia, for example, has witnessed centuries of litigation; land claims are being fought at law in western North America; and, while colleagues in arms stalk the mountains, the Maya are also pursuing constitutional tactics at home and at the United Nations. There is a thin tradition, too, of European action: early figures include the churchmen, Montesinos, Quiroga, Las Casas and Vieira, and the Puritans, John Eliot and Roger Williams.

These are only the obvious ways in which native communities have been sustained and defended. For the great majority, the struggle has been tacit. It intensified as many began slowly to recover former population levels in the eighteenth century. For by then most of their lands had been annexed by whites as unused – not to mention the hypocrisy of the US removals and reservations. To understand this is to grasp one aspect of the unrest that bedevils so many regions in the Americas today.

Historical dictionary: Indian wars


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