Episode 206: Indigenous Americans (pt. 2) or “1491”

I hope everyone had a great Columbus Day weekend! I did not because I’m from Austin and as of last year, we don’t celebrate Columbus Day. So I had a fantastic Indigenous Peoples’ Day! Take that, Columbus! There’s some Montezuma’s Revenge for you – 500 years too late. This is my second episode in a two-part series celebrating indigenous history. Last week I told you why I wished I was an Inca – if you haven’t listened to that one, you should check it out. Today we’re going to travel further north to the land that will come to be known as the United States.

Many people around the country have come to the conclusion, after five centuries of careful consideration, that the destruction of millions of Native Americans and the enslavement of many of the survivors was… you know… bad. And, for anyone out there who is like, “Well but Columbus didn’t know he was bringing disease that would destroy two continents! He just started a process that he shouldn’t be responsible for!” Shut up. Yes he did. Christopher Columbus himself is responsible for the first transatlantic slave voyage, rounding up hundreds of natives into pens, selecting the best “specimens” and then taking them back to Europe to be gawked at and eventually sold. This included women who were sold into sex slavery and children.

So, that’s all the air time I want to give Columbus. Instead, let’s spend the rest of the episode talking about the people who never get talked about – the original Americans. Oh, you came over on the Mayflower? How cute. We walked across a freakin’ bridge of ice.

Yeah. At least 12,000 years ago, nomadic ancestors of the Native Americans hiked over a land bridge that was connecting Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age. There are other theories, but this is the one that’s most generally accepted. They slowly made their way all the way down to the tip of South America, some settling along the way and eventually populating two entire continents. Over thousands of years, as they migrated across the continents, Native Americans have developed a wide range of languages, customs, and civilizations. There are as many different tribal nations in the Americas as there are nations in Europe, Asia, or Africa, and there is as much variety among them. So when we talk about the “Native Americans” as one group, it’s really problematic because they were just as diverse as any other continent.

But, I’m going to perpetuate that problem by, in general, talking about them as a massive group. Sorry. I could talk about tribes individually, but then this would become an entirely different, much more intricate, podcast. Today, I want to focus on one thing: what was going on in the Americas before Columbus arrived? Spoiler: a lot more than you were probably taught in school.

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…

Act 1: Math Is Hard

“When I went to high school… I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness.” That quote comes from a writer who graduated high school in the 1970s; but it could have come from probably almost anyone listening to this podcast. Right? This is similar to what most of us have learned about the Native Americans in school: they were small, mostly nomadic, and they lived off the land. In the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning European Discovery of America, the author observed that Native Americans experienced “short and brutish lives, void of hope for any future.” Wow. “Void of hope for any future?” As late as 1987, a standard high school U.S. history textbook described the Americas before Columbus as “empty of mankind and its works.” Whoa. “Empty of mankind.” That’s insane. And wrong.

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ve already listened to my rant about why we need to teach African history better then you’re allowed to tune out for a minute. But by perpetuating the stereotypes that the Americas were empty wilderness with no civilization before 1492, then we are letting the conquistadores and colonizers completely off the hook. If there weren’t very many people living here back then, our white guilt is eased and we can overlook their disappearance as a sad, but common, casualty of war. But there’s a few problems with that: 1. There were way more natives living in the Americas than we’ve been taught. 2. Not all of them died of disease – many were enslaved or were actively killed by colonizers. And 3. They haven’t “disappeared.” Native American people still exist today but we talk about them as if they’re in the past. There are three major myths that get perpetuated about Native Americans before 1492. So there’s a lot to unpack here, let’s get going.

Myth #1: The Americas were sparsely populated when Europeans arrived. False. In 1492, there were at least as many or MORE people living in the Americas as there were in Europe at the same time. Let that sink in. The population of the Americas (which, to be fair, does include two continents) was equal to or LARGER than the population of Europe.

Our estimates of how many natives were here before Columbus arrived have been incredibly low until very recently. Why? Well, first, math is hard. But math is especially hard when you’re trying to estimate how many people used to exist when there are so few of those people left and very little documentation of their previous existence.

For a long time, historians based their estimates off of the accounts of the earliest explorers. So they would read the accounts of Cortes, Cabeza de Vaca – all those guys we spend way too much time on in Texas History class – and use their writings to guess how many natives were there at the beginning. So, an explorer described a part of the country as sparsely populated, then we assumed that meant that that part of the continent had always been sparsely populated – since he’s the first outsider to see them, right?

But here’s the problem: It has become clear that disease spread across the continents way faster than white people did. So what those early explorers were seeing, as they traveled through the southwest, for example, were the survivors. What the early explorers and colonists were describing was what the population looked like after a massive epidemic – their estimates were incredibly low.

For example, Hernando de Soto was a famous Spanish conquistador who explored deep into the modern American south. He truly would have been the first contact for any native he met along the way. The first time he crossed the Mississippi River just south of modern-day Memphis, it was an incredibly tense encounter. As they crossed the river, thousands of Indian warriors watched them on either side. When he got further south into Arkansas, he described thickly settled land “very well peopled with large towns.” They wrote of cities, protected by earthen walls, large moats, and incredibly accurate archers.

After de Soto’s first expedition, no one visited the Mississippi Valley for more than 100 years. In 1682, white people appeared in this region again. A group of Frenchmen, led by Robert de la Salle, passed through the same area that Soto described as densely populated. It was deserted. La Salle didn’t find a native village for 200 miles. What happened to these people? Most of the evidence points to a common villain in world history: pigs. I’m just kidding, pigs are great. But not for the native people of the Mississippi Valley – disease from these animals, brought over by the Europeans, ravaged the population so that when settlers arrived, most of the work of conquest had already been done.

When we think about the English colonies, for example, we often forget that Europeans had been visiting New England for more than a hundred years before the Mayflower arrived. We think of them as the first, but they were landing in a place that had already experienced death and destruction on a massive scale – not by soldiers, but by disease. The first 50 settlements in New England, for example, were built on deserted Indian villages. Many colonists speculated that the natives had fled and abandoned their homes, but they were really building the earliest English colonies in a graveyard. William Bradford, the famous founder of the Plymouth Colony, wrote, “The good hand of God favored our beginnings by sweeping away great multitudes of the natives… that he might make room for us.” How nice of him.

It’s only been in the last few decades, thanks to more advanced scientific and archaeological tools, that we’ve been able to do a better job estimating the actual numbers. First, we do know that by around 1650 there were 6 million Native Americans. So the question of how many there were before the arrival of white people is important for determining how many natives died and, thus, how terribly we should feel about their destruction.

There is a wide range on this number. Up until the middle of the 20th century, most scholars said there were only 10 million natives when Europeans arrived – so only 4 million died. Only 4 million. Newer scholars have estimated a number as high as 100 million indigenous people. But the generally accepted, median number of how many people were living in the Americas before white people showed up is now 50 million. 50 million people. WIth this number, that would mean that 88% of the native population died during the time period of first contact.

In other words, when the first English settlers arrived on the east coast, the entire two continents of the Americas only had 12% of the people that had existed there just 100 years earlier. And, think about it – most of those people who did survive were in Mexico and South America, the remnants of the great Aztec and Inca empires. From the viewpoint of early settlers and explorers, North America was essentially uninhabited. But their mistake was in assuming that this was how it had always been, instead of realizing that they were visiting a place at the end of one of the largest demographic disasters in world history.

Act 2: Superiority Complex

Myth #2: The Native Americans were uncivilized, or at least less civilized than Europeans. False. Again, when most Europeans arrived, they were observing civilizations that had just been completely destroyed by disease. It would be as if historians were writing about the Romans, but only after they were sacked by the barbarians – we would have a very different view of that civilization if we only learned about their collapse and nothing about their achievements. For example, that’s why people so commonly think of the natives as nomadic hunters – it’s just because all of the heavily populated societies were wiped out as the disease spread quickly in dense urban areas. The nomads were all that were left. From this lens, we have to understand that the level of cultural advancement and the settlement range of Native Americans was way higher and broader than previously imagined.

First, just a quick reminder on what life would have been like for most people living in Europe. Yes, da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa and a teenage Henry VIII had just become king of England. But that doesn’t tell us what life would have been like for commoners, on the ground (so to speak).

In 1492 in Europe, most people would still be living in a small, one-room home in a rural area, reliant upon the local lord and his manor for basic necessities. Small towns existed for trading basic goods, but most people spent their entire life within a 10-mile radius of their place of birth. Thanks to the Crusades and the rise of trade, cities had sprung up, but even the largest only had around 100,000 people living there. Like I mentioned last episode, Cuzco – the capital of the Inca Empire – was larger than Paris at the time.

The printing press had just been invented by Gutenberg 50 years earlier and, though knowledge was spreading amongst the elites like Copernicus, access to education and literacy was virtually nonexistent for most Europeans. Contrast this with the fact that the Aztecs and Maya had complex writing systems that were taught to young people in schools, giving them what we believe was an almost 100% literacy rate in their empires.

Finally, 1492 was also the year that the Spanish Reconquista ended. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had reconquered the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, the Muslims, and were now embarking on their Inquisition to root out non Christians. Cue: torture devices and brutal deaths. Remember that, besides in England who had the very shaky Magna Carta, kingdoms had not established any basic rights or universal protections for their people. All in all, life wasn’t all that “civilized” for many in Europe at the same time.

Quick note: a lot of today’s episode is based on the work of Charles C. Mann. He wrote a book called 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. He asked seven experts (anthropologists, archaeologists and historians) if they would rather have been a typical Native American or a typical European in 1491. All seven chose to be a Native American. In fact, many early colonists made the same choice – scores of English people in Jamestown and Plymouth ran off to live with the native tribes. Why?

The evidence we have is clear: the Native Americans experienced a very high quality of life (this is excluding the very obvious and very not-their-fault: rampant disease that spread through their communities.) Pre-Columbian American societies had long traditions of respecting human dignity, social justice, and individual protections against the abuse of power by authorities. Europeans who came to the Americas were amazed by the egalitarian spirit of the natives. Compared with Europe’s feudal society dominated by a rigid class structure and rule by nobility, the natives’ respect for human rights was attractive to many. Even though, technically, native chiefs were all powerful, colonial leader Roger Williams wrote that, “they will not conclude of ought… unto which the people are averse.” Meaning, they wouldn’t implement a new policy if the people did not support it. That’s democratic as hell, y’all.

Many North American tribes used oral traditions to educate and pass down history. This was similar to sub-Saharan Africa and has led to equally problematic assumptions. Because official, traditional history is based largely on written sources, historians have dismissed oral history as unreliable. What this meant was that indigenous narratives passed down through generations were not included in “official” history books because they couldn’t be backed up with tangible, written sources. While, at first, it’s easy to assume that oral history is less reliable than written sources – just think about a game of telephone – let me challenge us on that assumption for a second.

First, think about stories, lyrics, family histories that you know and have remembered for years. Did you read them on paper? Or did you hear them? Think about it. I think about stories my grandma has told me about her family and her experiences – she told them to me orally; I didn’t read about them in a book. And sure, I’ve read Harry Potter dozens of times and could tell you a ton of details about that story – don’t get me started – but I don’t have the book memorized the way I can recall every single *NSync lyric by heart. The transmission of information orally is valuable; it sticks in people’s minds. To negate all history that has been passed down through storytelling is shortsighted and overlooks the impact that a good story – especially one about the history of your people – can have on the brain.

But also, just because something is written down does not make it automatically more reliable. Just look at the Internet, my God. For centuries western historians have prioritized narratives that can be documented with primary sources – diary entries, transcripts of speeches, firsthand accounts. And those are also incredibly useful – but they have biased “official” history in favor of the parts of the world with a strong written tradition – namely, Europe and Asia. And they have discriminated against the parts of the world that valued oral history – namely, Africa and the Americas.

WIth that being said, there were pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations that had a complex written record, especially in modern-day Mexico and Central America. Like I mentioned, the Aztec and Maya people had sophisticated writing systems that were taught in schools. Sources indicate that they had extensive libraries full of books detailing their histories, but these were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. Cool thanks.

Science was also a thing in the Americas. Surviving pictographs across the Americas show surgeries being performed. One pictograph found in Mexico indicates that a brain surgery was successfully performed without anesthetic. Now, I’m not saying that was good for the person whose brain was being cut into, but it speaks to the advanced tools and technologies that were being utilized in the Americas before 1492.

Economically, there is a lot of evidence that native groups traded extensively throughout the Americas. One of the largest cities in North America, Cahokia, was at the center of a continent-wide trade route. Centered in modern-day St. Louis, their trade stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Stones, especially turquoise, from the American Southwest has been found in South America while maize from Mexico and feathers from the Amazon have been found in modern-day North America. And remember – they would have established these trade routes without beasts of burden and without the wheel. Almost all of this trade would have been conducted by humans on foot. It was essentially their version of the Silk Road – we should give it a name. The Maize Lane? Turquoise Turnpike? I don’t know.

Finally, a common argument is that the Europeans had highly sophisticated technology that outmatched the natives. Now, I’m not going to say this isn’t true – guns were undoubtedly more sophisticated, or at least they caused more damage, than native weapons. But, we shouldn’t overestimate their impact. 16th century guns were highly unreliable and they often jammed. Many Native Americans believed that the whole purpose of guns was to create a distraction – they called them “noisemakers.” Even when they were given the option, many natives kept their arrows because they determined that the guns were much more difficult to aim accurately. As John Smith of the Jamestown colony put it, “the awful truth [is that guns] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.” In my head I hear every John Smith in Mel Gibson’s voice. Thanks a lot, Disney.

Moccasins were sturdier than European boots and offered a silent approach during warfare. And as far as sailing rivers and coastline, canoes were faster and easier to maneuver than any small European boat available at the time. The point is that guns and other European technology did very little to help conquer the natives; the single most important factor was disease, something that was brought to the Americas completely unbeknownst to the Europeans, making it hard to give them a lot of real “credit” for the conquest, if that’s the right word for it.

Finally, contrary to popular belief most native Americans were not very impressed with the Europeans when they arrived. I talked last season about the God myth of the conquistadores – this idea that the natives believed the white men to be gods and so they, essentially, surrendered. Not true. Aztec emperor Montezuma, for example, at most might have believed that Cortes was a divine king like he also believed himself to be. But there was not this inferiority complex coming from the natives. In fact, many of them viewed them with disdain.

According to a missionary, the Huron tribe believed that the French “possessed little intelligence in comparison to themselves.” Various reports from early explorers show that the natives viewed Europeans as physically weak, ugly, and – my favorite – sexually untrustworthy. I’m not going to go into detail on that one; I’ll just leave it there for you to mull over.

Natives were appalled by how dirty the Europeans were while the Spaniards, who rarely bathed, wrote about their amazement at the Aztec’s personal cleanliness. A Jesuit missionary reported that the “savages” were disgusted by European handkerchiefs. “They say, we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground.” Really good point. I have Kleenex that has been in my purse for, possibly, years. You’re right Native Americans; that’s disgusting. Finally, a totally valid question came from the Micmac tribe: If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants leaving? Touche.

Act 3: Can You Paint With All the Colors of the Wind?

As a historian I’m destined to hate Disney. Instead of historical fiction – a genre I happen to love – they create what I call “fictional history.” They take very real people and very real events, but then change them around just enough to make them totally unreliable. But, one thing they do get right is the cultural clash between the natives and the white settlers. And when Pocahontas swan dives off a cliff and sings about being able to paint with the wind and listening to the wolf cry to the blue corn moon – it’s pretty great. But it’s also misleading. Of course it is.

Our vision of the world before Columbus is one of pristine nature preserved by the natives. When Pocahontas sings about their harmonious relationship with the natural world what we hear is that the natives didn’t touch or transform their environment. But that’s far from the truth.

The New World was not wilderness like the Europeans believed – the indigenous people had been constantly altering their environment for thousands of years. They were just way better at it than the Europeans were. Basically, they transformed their environment so successfully that they created the vast wilderness that provided everything they needed. For example, they didn’t just sit back as bison happened to pass by; they worked hard for generations to create factors so that the bison would want to roam near them. And they did it in a way that was sustainable so that future generations would have the same access to natural resources that they had. What a concept.

A lot of natives used fire to radically transform their environment. Slash-and-burn techniques would create huge grasslands that could be cultivated – both for farming and to grow plants that would attract animals for hunting. Even though the Americas had way fewer animals that were able to be domesticated they did raise animals like turkey, llamas, and guinea pigs for food. But they also semi-domesticated a lot of wild animals, creating migration patterns and other factors that would make it easier for them to be hunted.

Basically, when the Europeans arrived and marveled at the massive herds of wild game roaming the continent – they were looking at the result of centuries of environmental engineering by the natives. They didn’t realize how much effort had been undertaken to make the continents this way – and they probably wouldn’t have believed it could be done by the natives even if they had. But the Europeans believed that this was the natural order of the American environment and believed that these populations would automatically replenish themselves. So they hunted them down without taking any action to maintain the populations. Meanwhile, the natives were sitting on their reservations watching their millennia of hard work go down the drain.

As for farming, today more than half of the crops grown around the world were initially developed in the Americas by the indigenous people. I mentioned last episode about crop diversity in Peru – over 4,000 types of potatoes! – but we also have the native Americans to thank for beans, corn, peppers, and avocado. That’s what I call the “Austin, Texas taco diet.” There was also chia, quinoa, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, and pineapple. This last week on the Big Bang Theory Sheldon mentioned that King Charles II of England once posed for a portrait with a pineapple. That’s because they were so rare, having to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, that they were typically reserved for nobility. Imagine – standing for hours to have your portrait painted… with a pineapple.

The American crops that traveled back to the “Old World” dramatically reduced hunger around the world. Population boomed across Africa, Europe and Asia thanks to easy-to-grow crops, like potatoes – just ask the Irish. The Europeans had stumbled upon a perfect system: they could sell these popular American crops back to the Old World, fueling a population explosion especially in Africa. Then they could take the Africans back across the ocean to work on farms and plantations growing more of these profitable crops. The Europeans became the most successful middlemen in all of history.

Beyond hunting and farming, though, the natives just straight up built stuff – way more than we imagine. As Charles Mann, author of 1491, describes, “ From southern Maine down to about the Carolinas, you would have seen pretty much the entire coastline lined with farms, cleared land, interior for many miles and densely populated villages generally rounded with wooden walls. And then in the Southeast, you would have seen these priestly chiefdoms, which were centered on these large mounds, thousands and thousands of them, which still exist.” Excluding central and south America, who built straight-up empires that could compete with any Old World civilization (Tenochtitlan and Cuzco were both bigger than London or Paris at the time), even in North America which was more sparsely populated you had massive infrastructure projects.

Natives built sophisticated dams, dikes, and piping to irrigate their fields. They intentionally planted trees and other boundary plants to divert herds of animals toward canyons and other natural features that made hunting them easier and more efficient.

Even though most of the monumental building projects were found in central and south America, Cahokia is a pre-Columbian city near St. Louis that breaks the mold. In 1810, budding adventure writer Henry Brackenridge was traveling around the frontier. He had heard that Cahokia was an interesting archaeological site and when he visited he was “struck with a degree of astonishment.” Rising from the muddy Cahokia River was a massive mound of earth, larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. The main mound was surrounded by hundreds of smaller mounds – all in all it covered five square miles. You can visit the mounds today – it’s a protected historic site and one of only 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the U.S. It’s on the list with pretty good company including Monticello, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty.

Keep in mind, Breckenridge visited the site just seven years after the Louisiana Purchase and just six years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition westward. The Americans had just finished being small colonies along the east coast, so the mounds at Cahokia would have been rarely – if ever- visited by white people at this point. Brackenridge didn’t seem to doubt that these structures were built by the native Americans but not everyone agreed.

As others visited the site, writers attributed the structures to almost every group imaginable except Native Americans: Vikings, the Chinese, “Hindoos”, ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, the lost tribes of Israel, and a stray band of Welshmen. All of these possibilities were easier for white Americans to believe than the fact that Native Americans had created this structure. Some went even further and said that no one built them at all; historian George Bancroft wrote in 1840 that the earthworks were a purely natural formation. If you’ve seen these mounds that’s crazy – they are perfectly straight rectangular structures that rise suddenly from the ground. Just Google Image “Cahokia mounds” and then imagine someone suggesting that they were created naturally. It’s ridiculous. But, apparently, it was less ridiculous than natives building it.

If you listened to season one, this should remind you of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Remember that when British explorers came upon the ruins of this amazing postclassical civilization in sub-Saharan Africa, they refused to believe it was built by black Africans. Such was the level of so-called scientific racism in the 19th century that the idea that indigenous people of color were capable of forming civilizations on par with those of Europe was completely impossible. This is important because this century is when a lot of the traditional histories of the U.S. and Europe were established. The field of history as an academic profession was growing and so many of the first attempts to create massive narratives of the world were compiled in the 19th century. What that means for us is that many of these narratives stuck and our 20th (and even 21st) century educations have been largely based on historical accounts that are highly problematic.


Why do we care about the world before Columbus? Why does it matter whether the Cahokia mounds were natural or made by indigenous people? For your daily life, it probably doesn’t. But for our identity as Americans, it really does. And for Native Americans (who – again – still exist) it matters a lot.

Native American groups today are still fighting for their rights. Throughout the 19th century, they were forced off the land that they worked so hard to cultivate, forced to live on reservations where they were prevented from hunting and where they became dependent on handouts from the federal government that they hadn’t needed before the federal government showed up. Their children were sent to boarding schools to be “assimilated” into white American culture. They took English names and were forbidden to practice their native culture.

Native Americans didn’t become citizens of the United States until 1924. This fact blew my mind. Like, what? They are the only Americans whose entire ancestral line was born in America. They are the most legitimate citizens of all. But it wasn’t until after World War I, when Native Americans became very useful as code talkers (helping get around German spies who had no knowledge of indigenous languages), that the government finally began to recognize them as a part of our country.

Native Americans fought for civil rights alongside African Americans, latinos, and women in the 1960s. The flag of AIM, the American Indian Movement, carries the line, “Remember Wounded Knee.” This is a reference to the Wounded Knee Massacre that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of native women and children at the hands of the federal government. That same tribe, the Sioux Nation, was also at the center of the Standing Rock protests a few years ago when an oil pipeline was proposed that would cut through their sacred land. Side note: they built it and it’s already leaked hundreds of thousands of oil into their land. Great, thanks.

The point is that if you are a Native American, you’ve had most of your heritage, land, and independence stripped away and it’s hard to imagine them ever fully getting it back. But maybe we can give them back some of their history. By acknowledging that their foundational civilizations were as “civilized” and worthy of discussion as of those in the “Old World,” we are validating their value to our nation’s history. Re-writing history and changing the people or events that we honor – like changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day – might seem trivial to some; but to those who have a long and intense history with those symbols of oppression, like Columbus, it means a lot. And, let’s be honest, after all they’ve been through it’s almost literally the least we can do.


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