February 7, 2009

AMERICA BEFORE COLUMBUS

Man made his appearance on the western continent unnumbered ages ago, not unlikely before the close of the glacial period. It is possible that human life began in Asia and western North America sooner than on either shore of the Atlantic. Nothing wholly forbids the belief that America was even the cradle of the race, or one of several cradles, though most scientific writers prefer the view that our species came hither from Asia. De Nadaillac judges it probable that the ocean was thus crossed not at Behring Strait alone, but along a belt of equatorial islands as well. We may think of successive waves of such immigration--perhaps the easiest way to account for certain differences among American races.

It is, at any rate, an error to speak of the primordial Americans as derived from any Asiatic stock at present existing or known to history.
The old Americans had scarcely an Asiatic feature. Their habits and customs were emphatically peculiar to themselves. Those in which they agreed with the trans-Pacific populations, such as fashion of weapons and of fortifications, elements of folk-lore, religious ideas, traditions of a flood, belief in the destruction of the world by fire, and so on, are nearly all found the world over, the spontaneous creations of our common human intelligence.

The original American peoples, various and unlike as they were, agreed in four traits, three of them physical, one mental, which mark them off as in all likelihood primarily of one stock after all, and as different from any Old World men: (1) They had low, retreating foreheads. (2)
Their hair was black. (3) It was also of a peculiar texture, lank, and cylindrical in section, never wavy. And (4) their languages were polysynthetic, forming a class apart from all others in the world. The peoples of America, if from Asia, must date back to a time when speech itself was in its infancy.
The numerous varieties of ancient Americans reduce to two distinct types --the Dolicocephalous or long-skulled, and the Brachycephalous or short-skulled. Morton names these types respectively the Toltecan and the American proper. The Toltecan type was represented by the primitive inhabitants of Mexico and by the Mound-builders of our Mississippi Valley; the American proper, by the Indians. The Toltecans made far the closer approach to civilization, though the others possessed a much greater susceptibility therefor than the modern Indians of our prairies would indicate.

Of the Mound-builders painfully little is known. Many of their mounds still remain, not less mysterious or interesting than the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps almost equally ancient. The skeletons exhumed from them often fly into dust as soon as exposed to air, a rare occurrence with the oldest bones found in Europe. On the parapet-crest of the Old Fort at Newark, 0., trees certainly five hundred years old have been cut, and they could not have begun their growth till long after the earth-works had been deserted. In some mounds, equally aged trees root in the decayed trunks of a still anterior growth.

Much uncertainty continues to shroud the design of these mounds. Some were for military defence, others for burial places, others for lookout stations, others apparently for religious uses. Still others, it is supposed, formed parts of human dwellings. That they proceeded from intelligence and reflection is clear. Usually, whether they are squares or circles, their construction betrays nice, mathematical exactness, unattainable save by the use of instruments. Many constitute effigies--of birds, fishes, quadrupeds, men. In Wisconsin is a mound 135 feet long and well proportioned, much resembling an elephant; in Adams County, 0., a gracefully curved serpent, 1,000 feet long, with jaws agape as if to swallow an egg-shaped figure in front; in Granville, in the same State, one in the form of a huge crocodile; in Greenup County, Ky., an image of a bear, which seems leaning forward in an attitude of observation, measuring 53 feet from the top of the back to the end of the foreleg, and 105-1/2 feet from the tip of the nose to the rear of the hind foot.
The sites of towns and cities were artfully selected, near navigable rivers and their confluences, as at Marietta, Cincinnati, and in Kentucky opposite the old mouth of the Scioto. Points for defence were chosen and fortified with scientific precision. The labor expended upon these multitudinous structures must have been enormous, implying a vast population and extensive social, economic, and civil organization. The Cahokia mound, opposite St. Louis, is 90 feet high and 900 feet long.

The Mound-builders made elegant pottery, of various design and accurate shapes, worked bone and all sorts of stones, and even forged copper.
There are signs that they understood smelting this metal. They certainly mined it in large quantities, and carried it down the Mississippi hundreds of miles from its source on Lake Superior. They must have been masters of river navigation, but their mode of conveying vast burdens overland, destitute of efficient draft animals as they apparently were, we can hardly even conjecture.

The Mound-builders, as we have said, were related to the Antique populations of Mexico and Central America, and the most probable explanation of their departure from their Northern seats is that in face of pestilence, or of some overpowering human foe, they retreated to the Southwest, there to lay, under better auspices, the foundations of new states, and to develop that higher civilization whose relics, too Little known, astound the student of the past, as greatly as do the stupendous pillars of Carnac or the grotesque animal figures of Khorsabad and Nimrud.

So much has been written about the American Indians that we need not discuss them at length. They were misnamed Indians by Columbus, who supposed the land he had discovered to be India. At the time of his arrival not more than two hundred thousand of them lived east of the Mississippi, though they were doubtless far more numerous West and South. Whence they came, or whether, if this was a human deed at all, they or another race now extinct drove out the Mound-builders, none can tell.

Of arts the red man had but the rudest. He made wigwams, canoes, bone fish-hooks with lines of hide or twisted bark, stone tomahawks, arrow-heads and spears, clothing of skins, wooden bows, arrows, and clubs. He loved fighting, finery, gambling, and the chase. He domesticated no animals but the dog and possibly the hog. Sometimes brave, he was oftener treacherous, cruel, revengeful. His power of endurance on the trail or the warpath was incredible, and if captured, he let himself be tortured to death without a quiver or a cry. Though superstitious, he believed in a Great Spirit to be worshipped without idols, and in a future life of happy hunting and feasting.

Whether, at the time of which we now speak, the Indians were an old race, already beginning to decline, or a fresh race, which contact with the whites balked of its development, it is difficult to say. Their career since best accords with the former supposition. In either case we may assume that their national groupings and habitats were nearly the same in 1500 as later, when these became accurately known. In the eighteenth century the Algonquins occupied all the East from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, and stretched west to the Mississippi. At one time they numbered ninety thousand. The Iroquois or Five Nations had their seat in Central and Western New York. North and west of them lived the Hurons or Wyandots. The Appalachians, embracing Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and a number of lesser tribes, occupied all the southeastern portion of what is now the United States. West of the Mississippi were the Dakotas or Sioux.

Since the white man's arrival upon these shores, very few changes have occurred among the brute inhabitants of North America. A few species, as the Labrador duck and the great auk, have perished. America then possessed but four animals which had appreciable economic value; the dog, the reindeer at the north, which the Mound-builders used as a draft animal but the Indians did not, and the llama and the paco south of the equator. Every one of our present domestic animals originated beyond the Atlantic, being imported hither by our ancestors. The Indians of the lower Mississippi Valley, when De Soto came, had dogs, and also what the Spaniards called hogs, perhaps peccaries, but neither brute was of any breed now bred in the country. A certain kind of dogs were native also to the Juan Fernandez and the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Edward John Payne is doubtless correct in maintaining, in his "History of the New World called America," that the backwardness of the American aborigines was largely due to their lack of animals suitable for draft or travel or producing milk or flesh good for food. From the remotest antiquity Asiatics had the horse, ass, ox and cow, camel and goat--netting ten times the outfit in useful animals which the Peruvians, Mexicans, or Indians enjoyed.

The vegetable kingdom of Old America was equally restricted, which also helps explain its low civilization. At the advent of the Europeans the continent was covered with forests. Then, though a few varieties may have since given out and some imported ones run wild, the undomesticated plants and trees were much as now. Not so the cultivated kinds. The Indians were wretched husbandmen, nor had the Mound-builders at all the diversity of agricultural products so familiar to us. Tobacco, Indian corn, cocoa, sweet potatoes, potatoes, the custard apple, the Jerusalem artichoke, the guava, the pumpkin and squash, the papaw and the pineapple, indigenous to North America, had been under cultivation here before Columbus came, the first four from most ancient times. The manioc or tapioca-plant, the red-pepper plant, the marmalade plum, and the tomato were raised in South America before 1500. The persimmon, the cinchona tree, millet, the Virginia and the Chili strawberry are natives of this continent, but have been brought under cultivation only within the last three centuries.

The four great cereals, wheat, rye, oats, and rice, constituting all our main food crops but corn, have come to us from Europe. So have cherries, quinces, and pears, also hops, currants, chestnuts, and mushrooms. The banana, regarded by von Humboldt as an original American fruit, modern botanists derive from Asia. With reference to apples there may be some question. Apples of a certain kind flourished in New England so early after the landing of the Pilgrims that it is difficult to suppose the fruit not to have been indigenous to this continent. Champlain, in 1605 or 1606, found the Indians about the present sites of Portland, Boston, and Plymouth in considerable agricultural prosperity, with fields of corn and tobacco, gardens rich in melons, squashes, pumpkins, and beans, the culture of none of which had they apparently learned from white men. Mr. Payne's generalization, that superior food-supply occasioned the Old World's primacy in civilization, and also that of the Mexicans and Peruvians here, seems too sweeping, yet it evidently contains large truth.

See also:
Christopher Columbus, early years

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