The Story of the Land of Your Sojourn, Part VIII:Portuguese Voyages and the Beginning of the Atlantic World
By the late 1400s, Western Europeans had everything they needed to start building a new world centered on the Atlantic Ocean – a world in which Western Europe would begin its multi-century climb from being a cultural and political backwater region to dominating the globe.
Contact with China had given them paper, gun powder, and the inspiration for block printing (leading to the invention of the printing press in Germany in the 1450s). Contact with the Arab world (largely via the Crusades) had given them new sailing technology, awareness of a new cash crop (sugar), and renewed access to many ancient Greek and Roman writers, whose writings had been preserved by neighboring Islamic empires. Meanwhile, new techniques developed inside Europe meant that iron and steel could be produced in vast quantities of good quality.
In short, Western Europeans now had the ability to map and navigate the globe in new ways (people knew the world was round), they had new ships capable of sailing longer distances and in more dangerous waters, and they were starting to acquire the military superiority needed to build and maintain trans-Atlantic empires.
Pretty much every human society puts itself at the center of history. Communities (and modern nation-states are no exception!) tend to understand the present primarily through how it affects them, and they tend to interpret the significance of major events in the past in terms of how those events lead to their community’s creation and its current condition. Sometimes those of us who live in the United States can fall into the trap of viewing European expansion westward as inevitable. We can almost picture Europeans like little kids with their noses pressed up against the glass of history’s toy store, just waiting for the opportunity to set sail to the west and usher in a new chapter of the human story.
But the truth is that through the mid-fifteenth century, inhabitants of the Eastern hemisphere weren’t looking west much at all! Rulers in Europe, Africa, and Asia were focused on securing inland territory. The idea of an ocean-spanning empire was pointless, given the limitations of available geographical knowledge and available sailing technology.
Besides, what would eventually drive Western Europeans into the ocean and bring our part of the world into a new global story could be obtained easily enough without risking ocean travel. Certainly, water-based trading was important for portions of both Europe and Africa, but the Mediterranean Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean, was the commercial sea hub of medieval Europe and Africa. And any meaningful connection between Europe or Africa and Asia was over land.
This entry is going to discuss how Native Americans made sense of themselves and their world prior to contact – or, a Native American “worldview,” if you will. But to do that, I have to discuss two HUGE caveats up front.
First, while the manner in which Native Americans understood themselves and their world differed in very significant ways from the Europeans they would encounter … this does NOT mean that we can speak of a uniform Native American worldview applicable to all indigenous communities in North America.
You might think of it as trying to describe monotheism. On the one hand, we can speak of a monotheistic worldview that differs in important ways from a non-monotheistic one. In other words, most monotheists share general characteristics that separate how they understand themselves and their world from how polytheists, atheists, etc, do these things. And yet, if we start diving too deep into individual monotheistic traditions in our quest for commonalities, we are going to find significant differences rather quickly. Despite some general characteristics they share, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity still have major differences—as do other monotheistic traditions.
The Story of the Land of Your Sojourn, Part V: A Whirlwind Tour of the Continent on the Eve of Contact
Last week we discussed how the ancestors of today’s Native Americans had to make drastic adjustments in light of the disappearance of megafauna. As these communities adapted to local environments, they produced a remarkable array of new ways of life. This doesn’t mean that these new local communities developed in isolation from reach other. We have evidence of continent wide trade networks crisscrossing North America during this time period. Nonetheless, the ancestors of today’s Native Americans showed remarkable ingenuity and creativity in adapting to new localized existences. Today, let’s take a whirlwind tour of the continent, so that you can get an idea of how the peoples of North America lived on the eve of contact with Europeans.
In the Pacific Northwest, Native American cultures mostly developed around the hunting of salmon and other marine life. Because of the overabundance of local food sources, intensive agriculture was not part of the life of these communities—though they certainly gathered local plants for their own purposes. Instead, they focused their efforts on “farming” the sea, developing cultures centered on rituals and ceremonies related to fishing and seafaring. Communities in the Pacific Northwest could grow as large as 2000+ members, leading to significant population density throughout the region.