Well, as I’m sure will happen many times in the process of writing a blog series a week at a time, we’re not going to discuss in this entry what I said we would last entry. I’m trying to keep each entry at a casually readable length, and I vastly overestimated what I could fit into this particular entry. We will still take that whirlwind tour of the continent, but we’re not quite ready to do that yet. We have a bit more background work to do this week that will have significant consequences for the development of North America prior to contact with Europe, and that will significantly affect what happens when contact does occur.
Roughly 11,000 BC, something happened that would not only impact the development of Native American cultures, but also impact contact between Europeans and Native Americans millennia later: all of the megafauna (Latin for “big honkin’ animals”) died off in a relatively brief period of time. Hunting these massive animals had not only provided the basic nutritional needs of North American populations up to this time, but it had also provided the foundation for their societies.
Suddenly the ancestors of today’s Native Americans found themselves adopting new localized ways of life – each group harnessing local resources and realities in order to create new societies and cultures, now that the life of megafauna hunters was no longer viable. In doing so, they faced two important differences compared to groups doing so in other portions of the world in light of the disappearance of their own megafauna.
First, very few good candidates for domestication among animals survived in the North America. Whereas the “Old World” – Europe, Africa, and Asia – eventually ended up with horses, sheep, cattle, camels, pigs, goats, chickens, etc … North America got dogs and turkeys (South America domesticated a few others, such as the alpaca and guinea pig). That’s it. The limited availability of domestic animals – especially ones that could serve as beasts of burdens – would significantly shape the development of Native American societies. However, it would have an even greater impact when it came to disease. Most of the deadliest diseases in human history have developed as they jump back and forth from targeting our domestic animals to targeting us. Thousands of years of life with domestic animals allowed Europeans to bring with them to North America a biological arsenal of diseases unmatched by almost anything they encountered over here. This deadly disease disparity between “Old” and “New” worlds will have a tremendous impact on how the story of contact plays out. But more on that later in the series.
Secondly, North America had very few good candidates for domestication among plants. Most wild plants do not make good candidates for human crops, any more than most wild animals make good livestock. The “Old World” had a numerical advantage here, too, with the ancestors of oats, wheat, rice, etc, all available for human manipulation and eventual consumption. Agriculture in the North America developed later and in a more limited way, until the eventual combination of growing corn, beans, and squash together – known as “The Three Sisters” – spreads out of what is now Mexico and into significant portions of North America.
Anthropologists used to believe agriculture was necessary to develop large, complex societies. The argument went something like this: agriculture provides food surpluses. You need surpluses to support “specialists” like kings, priests, artisans, warriors, etc, who do not spend their time growing their own food. These “specialists” are what allow for the development of complex societies.
We now have plenty of examples of societies around the world that produced large population densities, significant public construction projects, and/or other characteristics of complex societies without relying on agricultural surpluses. We’ll meet some of these in North America, next week. We’ll also meet large, complex societies that did depend on agricultural surpluses to grow.
But for the descendants of those early herders and farmers in Europe who had such an abundance of candidates for domestication available to them, a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle would become synonymous with “civilization.” In North America, they would encounter Native American societies that were similarly based on agriculture, such as the Mexica (Aztecs) and Maya in what is now Mexico, the Mississippian cultures of the Southeast, the Puebloan cultures of the Southwest, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and Powhatan Confederacy of the Eastern woodlands.
They would also meet groups who did not rely on agriculture in the same ways as they did. This lack of a sedentary agricultural lifestyle would move these groups from the category of “civilized” into the category of “savage” in the eyes of Europeans. The Spanish would refer to some such groups as “gente sin razon” – or, “people without reason.” Unfortunately, as we’ll see later, many Americans agreed with them.
I think a sense of fatalism is deadly to any good understanding of history. The purpose of this entry, then, was not to suggest that by 11,000 BC the future of America had already been set. However, to understand much of what happens when Europeans and Native Americans collide later, it’s important to understand how events even so long ago can have a significant impact.
Okay, next entry we’ll take the tour I promised. Thanks for your patience!