Class Notes, 9/2/19

  1. Today’s class was guided by three questions: What kind of evidence can we use to analyze pre-Columbus Latin America?, What is material culture and how can we use it as evidence?, and How did the local environment influence civilizations? For the first question, we need to understand that most of the accounts and evidence of the New World are from colonists’ point of views which can be biased and it doesn’t give us both sides of the story. As well as there being potential for ideas and traditions being lost in translation between the indigenous and the colonists. Evidence from pre-Columbus can come from artifacts and excavations, cultural traditions that have survived as well as tribe oral history. We can use surviving texts and inscriptions from the time, as well as the artwork. With modern technology, we can use DNA to look at genetics which can offer us a view of where these peoples ancestors may have come from. We can also use radar and sonar technology to discover lost buildings or sites that have been taken back over by the forest. The next question for class was about material culture. Material culture are the tangibles of a culture, so anything physical, from tools to buildings. For identity, material culture is very important to show what group we belong to, what our status is. The consumption or use of material culture is a way to communicate, without necessarily talking or trying, what your status or class is. Like it was mentioned in class that colonists had strict dress rules with European fashion, this was their showing of class. For the last question, we looked at the environmental influence on societies. Towns and cities were heavily influenced by where they developed by what natural resources were around them. Rivers and lakes were important as they needed a water source for themselves and for irrigation. They also needed areas suitable for growing crops, so areas that get a lot of rain. Deserts were avoided. When colonists arrived, flat land was the hot commodity as they wanted it to grow crops and raise livestock. Indigenous people, however, didn’t always need flat land for agriculture. Take Machu Picchu as an example, they created a city high up in the Andes mountains and were able to create terraces for crops.
  2. In one of our readings, Mann talks about how traditional scholars and even some new scholars find it ridiculous to claim that there were millions upon millions of Native Americans living in the Americas before Columbus. Some say that there is no evidence for such large civilizations. This relates to our class discussion because we were talking about how evidence is so heavily one-sided towards the colonizers. There is no good estimate of what population sizes were for the Natives that currently survive. The colonizers typically destroyed any written work of the Natives as they saw it as demonic and as a blocker to converting them to catholicism. This is why material cultures other than texts are so important to study these ancient people.
  3. Key terms:
    1.  material cultures – the physical items and places that are used to represent a culture, can include tools, buildings, artwork, and any other tangible item.
    2. epidemiology- the study of the patterns and spread of disease through a population.
  4.  More on material cultures of the pre-Columbus Latin American peoples.

More about different native cultures right before Columbus.

The history of animals in Latin America. Although starts way back with mammalian evolution, there is a good section on the pre-Columbian era as well as during the Columbian exchange.

5.  What can material culture tell us about a society that we have very few written record from their point of view or time period? Along the same lines, what can material culture tell us about a civilization that written record can’t?

What kind of evidence would be needed to support the argument that there were millions upon millions of natives living in Latin America pre-Columbus?

KH: I can help you get started with this one, if you’re interested: Koch, et al, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492“, Quaternary Science Reviews 207 March 2019: 13-36.  This starts with a look at multiple different techniques used for estimating population pre-contact.  Or for a historian’s look at the impacts of disease, see David Noble Cook’s Born to Die.

Creative thought question: How do you think history would be different if it was the Native Americans that sailed and “discovered” the old world? What would they have thought about Europeans, Africans, and Asians and all of their cultures?