How to erase civilizations from history books

So you’re walking through a wilderness preserve near your city when you discover ancient ruins of a lost city built by a long forgotten but highly sophisticated civilization. You realize with a start that this ‘wilderness’ is simply what grew up after the civilization came to some mysterious bad end.

This sounds like the premise of any number of fictional stories, but essentially it’s the real life story of the so-called New World, which wasn’t nearly as new as its European settlers assumed. I’m going to talk about two books here, both bestsellers, one relatively recent and the other now so obscure that you’ve probably never heard of it — though it contains an unintentionally enlightening surprise for modern readers.

Not long ago I read 1491 by Charles Mann, a fascinating book (now about ten years old) that explains how archeologists are learning that North and South America were more densely populated and home to civilizations that were more advanced than what we’ve been aware of. The numbers are still disputed, but in essence, the waves of disease that followed European contact represented one of the greatest disasters in human history, with a death toll that may have exceeded that of the Black Death.

As Mann’s title indicates, he’s looking at what can be known or inferred about what was here before Columbus: some of the world’s largest cities of the time, sophisticated agriculture (especially the development of corn, or ‘maize’ as it’s known outside of North America), and evidence that much of what later generations took to be virgin wilderness was in fact already heavily modified, both inadvertently and deliberately, by many generations of human occupation.

If you haven’t read 1491, The Atlantic published an article-length excerpt in 2002; Mann explains his main points in this 45-minute lecture video; and Bookbrowse also has a good summary.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Charles Mann, but you probably don’t know of John Bach McMaster, author of A Brief History of the United States. Written as a school textbook and first published in 1883, it was a bestseller and went through many editions. I have the 1885 edition on my shelf.

“Who first settled America?” McMaster asks in the first edition’s opening line. He was aware of the mound-building cultures of the New World, and makes much of the size and number of the mounds. “They seem, also, to have occupied Central America, and there to have developed a high civilization. They built cities, wove, cotton, worked in gold, silver, and copper, labored in the fields, and had regular governments.”

A Brief History of the United States, 1885 ed.

A Brief History of the United States, 1885 ed.

In talking about “high civilization,” McMaster (and others) made a crucial assumption: civilization builders must have been a different race from the people that Columbus mistakenly dubbed “Indians.” McMaster says the Indians “did not exceed 200,000 in number” east of the Mississippi, though an “immense number” of them lived in Mexico, Peru, and the Indies. “The Indians were the successors of the Mound Builders, and were by far their inferiors in civilization. We know not why the ancient race left, nor whence the Indians came.”

But there is a footnote in the 1885 edition: “This view was generally accepted until recently. Many now hold that all the aboriginal inhabitants of this country were of one race….”

This is why I’m happy to have the 1885 edition instead of the original, because here you can see the interpretation changing. The despised ‘red men’ built civilizations? Shocking!

Not long ago I learned that there are several other editions of this book (some apparently written for different age groups under slightly different titles)  available on Google Books. I checked the 1915 edition. If American schoolchildren started learning in 1885 that Indians may have been civilization builders, I wondered, what were students being taught thirty years later?

In the 1915 edition, the Mound Builders are relegated to only one paragraph on page 101, with no talk of “high civilization” in Central America. They are displaced from the opening chapter by… you guessed it, Christopher Columbus.

Why the change?

One idea: my copy of the book also includes this, under “Indian Characteristics” (pp.14-15): “He built no cities, no ships, no churches, no school-houses. He constructed only temporary bark wigwams and canoes. He made neither roads nor bridges, but followed foot-paths through the forest, and swam the streams. His highest art was expended in a simple bow and arrow… But he can not stop the tide of immigration. Unless he can be induced to give up his roving habits and cultivate the soil, he is doomed to destruction.”

In other words, the first edition had this neat portrait of a mysterious race of civilized people who built great cities and monuments, followed by a lowly race of good-for-nothing savages. But soon the story was marred when both groups turned out to be the same race. That sort of thing could call the whole narrative into question, especially in a society that believed race was determinative, and which saw the European dominance of world affairs as proof of the innate superiority of the white race. So the meso-American civilizations simply faded from consciousness, while the popular “Red Man of the Forest” narrative remained.

School textbooks, in other words, don’t necessarily reflect the best historical knowledge so much as they reflect current political culture — a point made powerfully in Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised, published in 1979 and still relevant today.

Today I think most Americans of my generation (middle-aged) still hold to some of the basic assumptions of what we might call the myth of the New World as Virgin Wilderness. It’s a painfully slow process — to this day people are still defending Columbus, still largely unaware of the scope of what was lost and the terrible scale of that loss.

And when you bring this up, people of a certain political persuasion will accuse you of  “white guilt.” But while there was certainly racism and even at times genocide in the conquest of the New World, most of the deaths were from disease, an accidental disaster that none of the participants understood. No one on either side of the Atlantic understood the science of contagion or immunity, and no one had the technology to stop it. Even if the Europeans had arrived with the most noble and humane of intentions, their mere presence would still have launched civilization-destroying pandemics of smallpox, cholera, influenza and other diseases.

That is not a reassuring narrative. It means that it’s possible to kill off a major portion of the earth’s population through simple ignorance. It means that the founders of present-day New World nations, rather than triumphing through some innate cultural superiority, instead are merely the lucky beneficiaries of a biological fluke that allowed them to build new nations on the graveyards of older nations that were wiped out mostly by forces beyond anyone’s control. Such a narrative makes our hold on the land seem much more accidental, and more fragile.


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