Challenging American History

Although it's not my main goal for this semester's Environmental History class, one of the important side goals (and I admit, an ongoing interest of mine) is correcting bad history that has been taught for so long that it's hardly ever questioned. So once I completed my story of pre-Columbian America for my first lecture, I compared it to the way some highly-regarded recent US History textbooks have covered the topic.

In many older American History textbooks, of course, the pre-Columbian story wasn’t told at all. American history begins in 1492. While some of the archaeological information available today was unknown to these earlier historians, they were often just not particularly interested in Indians or prehistory. It was remote, unknowable, and irrelevant. Lately this has changed a bit, and in the interests of inclusivity—or at least political correctness—contemporary textbooks usually say something about the people who were here before the Europeans. Here's what a sample of recent textbooks had to say about early America:

Proudly announcing added coverage of pre-Columbian America in the 1987 edition of his textbook,
American History, Richard N. Current devoted four pages to his description of America before Columbus. Current said Native Americans shared a common Asian ancestry that enabled Europeans to think of them all as a single race, although he acknowledged the fact that “natives had no reason to consider themselves part of one race or culture.” He explained how colonial whites believed Indian men were lazy because the women always seemed to be doing all the work. Current described the introduction of old world crops like sugar and bananas that “Indian tribes in time learned to cultivate,” but he failed to mention that they had independently developed the staple crops they already grew when Europeans arrived, such as maize, potatoes and cassava. Current commented that Indian farming “would often seem crude to Europeans” without explaining that most of the time the Europeans’ disdain for native practices arose from their profound ignorance of the environment and climate of the new world.

In his extremely popular and well-received 2011 textbook
Experience History, James West Davidson gives just three paragraphs to the arrival of humans in the Americas. He calls the people who came “nomads,” highlighting the term in a rare use of bold-face type. “Nomads” is a loaded concept that has been used regularly in American history to suggest that Indians never had the same type of relationship with their territories that whites do, and thus no claim of “ownership” of their land.

Describing pre-Columbian culture,
Experience History mentions that “pioneers in Mesoamerica began domesticating squash 10,000 years ago.” But in spite of this, the text stresses the idea that most Indians were simple hunter-gatherers who “continued to subsist largely on animals, fish, and nuts, all of which were abundant enough to meet their needs and even to expand their numbers.” Davidson characterizes the Adena and Hopewell cultures as “peoples who did not farm,” and explains that Indians didn’t farm in the Pacific Northwest because “Agriculture was unnecessary in such a bountiful place.”

Clearly Hopewell or Mississippian cities containing tens or hundreds of thousands of people needed more reliable sources of food than what hunters carried back from the woods. So what’s the point of Davidson’s portrayal of Indians as primitive hunter-gatherers? Davidson does mention the fact that the modern world’s most important food crop, maize, was developed by Indians – but this is how he explains it:

Modern-day species of corn, for example, probably derive from a Mesoamerican grass known as teosinte. It seems that ancient peoples gathered teosinte to collect its small grains. By selecting the grains that best suited them and bringing them back to their settlements, and by returning the grains to the soil through spillage or waste disposal, they unintentionally began the process of domestic cultivation.

What’s wrong with this description? First, there’s
no doubt that corn comes from teosinte, since they share the same genome. Second, Davidson’s suggestion that the multi-generational process that changed a self-seeding grass into a hybrid (maize) that needs humans to plant it was an accident is not only ridiculous, but it obscures the fact that these ancient people knew what they were doing and had the long-term cultural orientation to do it. Davidson’s portrayal does not reflect the fact that archaeologists and historians agree this process probably took hundreds of human generations from start to finish (thousands of generations for the plants), and incidentally, was probably done by women.

Centeotl, Aztec Maize God

In spite of admitting that “plants domesticated by indigenous Americans account for three-fifths of the world’s crops” today, Davidson manages to make it seem like that’s no big deal, and almost an accident. Davidson’s discussion of ancient American farming ends with a chart of the “Place and Timing of Pioneering Plant and Animal Domestications.” Southwest Asia tops the list, with the development of Wheat, Peas, Olives, Sheep and Goats dated to 8500 BCE. Next comes China, with Rice, Millet, Pigs and Silkworms “By 7500 BCE.” New Guinea and the African Sahel are next, followed finally by Mesoamerica and the Andes & Amazonia, which produced Corn, Beans, Squash, Potatoes, Manioc, Turkey, Llamas, and Guinea Pigs “By 3500 BCE.” This is just flatly wrong. Maize, potatoes, and cassava,
three of the top five staple crops in the world today, were all developed in the Americas beginning over 9,000 years ago. Eastern North America brings up the chart’s rear, producing only Sunflowers and Goosefoot by 2500 BCE. Never heard of goosefoot? Maybe you’ve heard it called grain Amaranth, its scientific name and the way it’s known by farmers worldwide who raise it for its high levels of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. So why call it goosefoot, unless your goal is to make it seem trivial and silly?

Davidson concludes his coverage of pre-Columbian Indians by observing that “a few centuries before European contact…the continent’s most impressive civilizations collapsed.” Davidson says the “sudden” and “mysterious” disappearance of cultures like the Mayan, Olmec, Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Cahokian was due to “a complex and still poorly understood combination of ecological and social factors.” In other words, through some combination of ecological mismanagement and social failure, Indians “went into eclipse by the twelfth century…[and] had faded by the fourteenth,” making room for whites from Europe. It almost seems like Cotton Mather’s famous explanation of how Providence had cleared the woods “of those pernicious creatures, making room for better growth.”