Native American Civilizations: Isolation


Figure 1.--Here a Native American child in the Amazonic forest climbs up to his house in the trees. One of the most significant aspect of Native American culture was its virtual complete isolation from Old World civilization. A major element of technological progress throughout history has been cross-cultural exchange. The isolation of Native Americans is perhaps the single most important reason explaing wht the lagged behind Old World civilizations technologically.

The Native American civilizations of the New World are unique in that they developed in isolation from the other great world civilizations. Some of the great Old World civilizations had extensive contacts. Others had only minimal contact, but contact nevertheless. Some archeologists have postulated contacts with Polynesians and or Africans and there are some intreaguing indicators, but these contacts have yet been proved with DNA evidence. Whether there were such contacts, it is clear that Native Amnericans of the New World were largely isolsted from the Old World. The contact with the Europeans beginning in 1492 was in many ways to Native Americans like visitors from outer space would seem to our modern world. [West] The Native American civilizations of the Americas lived in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. This was true to such an extent that many Native Americans thought the Spanish might even been gods. One of the many fascinating questions of history is how Cortez, Pizarro, and other Conquistadores defeated empires with millions of inhabitants with pitifully small armies. One reason is the cultural isolation of Native Americans. One historian writes, "Isolation insulates a culture from a wider field of competition and stimulus; and in the long run this is unlikely to be in its advantage." [Cook] Here the danger in part biological. Isolated communities do develop resistance to major disease. The European Conquistadors brought with them diseases like smallpox that proved more deadly than the European plagues of the 14th century. Another matter is technology. The technological progress in human civilizations do not follow a prescripted pattern. A society my be advanced in some areas and very primitive in others. The Native Americans had sophisticated mathematics and calendars, but did not develop the wheel. Europe on the other hand shared technological advances directly or indicrectly with other civiliizations (especially the Arabs ad China). While the contacts might be tenuous, such as over the Silk Road, might have been tenuous, but it existed. The contribution of Chinese technology to European history and civilization is astonishing. The isolation of Native Americans put them at a great disadvantage to the Spanish. As a result, the Native Americans could not match the technology of the Europeans.

Importance of Cross-cultural Civilization

The Native American civilizations of the New World are unique in that they developed in isolation from the other great world civilizations. Some of the great Old World civilizations had extensive contacts. Others had only minimal contact, but contact nevertheless. Egypt for example benefitted greatly from the advances first made in Mesopotamia. Europe shared technological advances directly or indicrectly with other civiliizations (especially the Arabs ad China). While the contacts might be tenuous, such as over the Silk Road, might have been tenuous, but it existed. The contribution of Chinese technology to European history and civilization is astonishing. A amazing number of technologies such as gunpowder which were perfected in the West had their origins in China.

Possibility of Contact

The possibility of pre-Colomian contact with native Americans has fascinated historians. Some archeologists and historians have postulated contacts both acrosscthe Pacific and Atlantic. This has included theories concerning Polynesians, Chinese, Africans, and Europeans. And there are some intreaguing indicators. Thor Heyerdahl on Kon-Tiki demonstrated that South American Native Americans had the technology to reach Polynesia. And the importance of the sweet potato (an Andean tuber) stringly suggests that some such voyages took place. And the Polynesian seafaring capability is well known. Evidence if such voyages is, however, very limited. One of the few such indications is varnish from a southwestern Peruvian tree found on a Rimac Valley (Peru) mummy--the famous 'screaming' mummy. There are also strong indicators of European pre-Colombian contact. The other theroes are more tenous. The number of people involved seems to have been very limited. The cultural impact appeara also very limited. The most important aspect seems to have been the appearance of the sweet potato in Polynesia. The transfer of European flint head technology is also important, but still widely discussed. These contacts have yet been proved with DNA evidence. But given the small numbers of people involved, may not be mesurable through DNA evidence. And most importantly, unlike the European contact beginning with Columbus, they were not sustauned contact, bit apparently isolated events. Whether there were such contacts or the extent of such contacts, it is clear that Native Amnericans of the New World were largely isolated from the Old World.

European Contact

The contact with the Europeans beginning with Columbus in 1492 was in many ways to Native Americans like visitors from outer space would seem to our modern world. [West] The Native American civilizations of the Americas lived in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. This was true to such an extent that many Native Americans thought the Spanish might even been gods. One of the many fascinating questions of history is how Cortez, Pizarro, and other Conquistadores defeated empires with millions of inhabitants with pitifully small armies. One reason is the cultural isolation of Native Americans. One historian writes, "Isolation insulates a culture from a wider field of competition and stimulus; and in the long run this is unlikely to be in its advantage." [Cook]

Disease

Here a major danger is biological. Isolated communities do develop resistance to major disease. The European Conquistadors brought with them diseases like smallpox that proved more deadly than the European plagues of the 14th century. This is something we are well aware of today, but was entirely unknown to the Native Anericans and Europeans. It proved to be a major reason that the huge Native American empires were defeated by such a small number of Europeans. The Aztec held out on their island fortress until disease desimated their ranks. European disease had in fact reached theInva Empire before Pizzaro appeared on the coast.

Technology

Another matter is technology. The technological progress in human civilizations do not follow a prescripted pattern. A society my be advanced in some areas and very primitive in others. The Native Americans had sophisticated mathematics and calendars, but did not develop the wheel. The isolation of Native Americans put them at a great disadvantage to the Spanish. As a result, the Native Americans could not match the technology of the Europeans.

Hemispheric Isolation

The discussion of the isolation of the New World/Americas is almost always written in connection with isolation from the old world and this of course was critical. It was, however, not the only way in which the Americas were isolated. The was also an element of isolation within the Americas as an artifact of geography. One author describes the geographic phenomenon as 'axis orientarion'. A simple look at the globe shows that the primary orientation of the Old World was east-west. This mean that developents such as food crops and techhnology like the wheel and chariot could easily spread throughout the Eurasian contiment or parts of it. Diamond points out thart the major food crops in the Old World were developed only once and became well established. The primary axis of the Americas and Africa was north south. This made the spread of idea, including crops and technology, much more difficult. He see as creating 'enormou, sometimes tragic, consequences'. He explains, :Axis orientation affected the rate of spread of crops and livestock, and possibly also of writing, wheels, and other inventiions. That basic feature of geography thereby contributed heavily to the very different experience of Native Americans, Africans, and Euasians in the last 500 years." [Diamond, p. 176.] THere was nothing like the Silk Road connecting the great civilizations of the America. The geography of the continent did not permit it. The people of Meso-America did not known of the Inca and their wre significant geopgraphic barriers to contact. There was cultural difussion, but not to the extent of the EurAsian land mass. And Diamond points as only one example that there is evidence that several important Anerican food crops were developed independently in more than one location rather than spread from one location.

Sources

Cook. Unfortunarely, we have lost the bbibliographical citation here.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton: New York, 1999), 494p.

West, Rebecca. Survivors in Mexico (Yale University Press, 2003), 264p.







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Created: 4:58 AM 2/27/2011
Last updated: 10:42 PM 3/9/2013