Old Lies About the New World

in The Salon by

Social studies was my absolute favorite subject as an elementary-school kid, and so I distinctly remember being fed a certain image of America before the invasion: one of a mostly empty “New World” dotted with simple tribal villages. The only exception, Tenochtitlán, was sometimes described by the textbooks, however begrudgingly, as “bustling.” Even then, the capital of the Mexica Empire was usually painted as being little more than a large village, albeit very large, yet less on par with the city-states of classical Greece than with those in the far more ancient Mesopotamia. Our teachers taught my classmates and I that when Hernán Cortés landed in present-day Mexico, the original inhabitants of this continent, the Indians, had yet to evolve past Bronze Age technologies and understanding, thus allowing the conquistadors to ride roughshod over everything — and anybody — that stood in their path. The “Aztecs,” we kids were told, merely cringed in fear and bowed to the armored hairy-faced white men they believed to be gods from across the sea.

But you need only read the letter Cortés himself sent to his boss, Carlos V, to realize the lie:

The city [Tenochtitlán] is as large as Seville or Cordova; its streets, I speak of the principal ones, are very wide and straight; some of these, and all the inferior ones, are half land and half water, and are navigated by canoes. All the streets at intervals have openings, through which the water flows, crossing from one street to another; and at these openings, some of which are very wide, there are also very wide bridges, composed of large pieces of timber, of great strength and well put together; on many of these bridges ten horses can go abreast. …

This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. There are also exposed for sale wrought and unwrought stone, bricks burnt and unburnt, timber hewn and unhewn, of different sorts. There is a street for game, where every variety of birds in the country are sold, as fowls, partridges, quails, wild ducks, fly-catchers, widgeons, turtledoves, pigeons, reed-birds, parrots, sparrows, eagles, hawks, owls, and kestrels; they sell likewise the skins of some birds of prey, with their feathers, head, beak, and claws. There are also sold rabbits, hares, deer, and little dogs, which are raised for eating. There is also an herb street, where may be obtained all sorts of roots and medicinal herbs that the country affords. There are apothecaries’ shops, where prepared medicines, liquids, ointments, and plasters are sold; barbers’ shops, where they wash and shave the head; and restaurateurs, that furnish food and drink at a certain price. There is also a class of men like those called in Castile porters, for carrying burdens. Wood and coal are seen in abundance, and braziers of earthenware for burning coals; mats of various kinds for beds, others of a lighter sort for seats, and for halls and bedrooms. …

Different kinds of cotton thread of all colors in skeins are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market, which has the appearance of the silk-market at Granada, although the former is supplied more abundantly. Painters’ colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthen-ware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted; maize or Indian corn, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and terra-firma; patés of birds and fish; great quantities of fish—fresh, salt, cooked and uncooked; the eggs of hens, geese, and of all the other birds I have mentioned, in great abundance, and cakes made of eggs; finally, everything that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets, comprising articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity, and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them. …

Within the city [Moctezuma’s] palaces were so wonderful that it is hardly possible to describe their beauty and extent; I can only say that in Spain there is nothing equal to them.

Historians over the centuries have tended to dismiss Cortés’s account of the Mexica metropolis as a self-seeking exaggeration, arguing that Cortés only hyped the majesty of the Triple Alliance in order to magnify the glory of its subsequent conquest under his command. For them, of the civilizations predating the modern age, the only ones worthy of notice were all east of the Atlantic. It seems unfathomable to these scholars that at the time Colón’s ships first wandered into the Caribbean in the autumn of 1492, Tenochtitlán was possibly the largest city in the entire world, rivaling the splendor of Venice and Constantinople, Europe’s powerful port cities.

And if the Mexica and their neighbors left Cortés speechless, we can only imagine what his distant cousin Francisco Pizarro must have felt when, a little more than a decade later, he stumbled into the realm of the mighty Inca.

As Charles C. Mann writes in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus:

In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo. The empire encompassed every imaginable type of terrain, from the rainforest of upper Amazonia to the deserts of the Peruvian coast and the twenty-thousand-foot peaks of the Andes between. ‘If imperial potential is judged in terms of environmental adaptability,’ wrote the Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, ‘the Inka were the most impressive builders of their day.

The Inka goal was to knit the scores of different groups in western South America–some as rich as the Inka themselves, some poor and disorganized, all speaking different languages–into a single bureaucratic framework under the direct rule of the emperor. The unity was not merely political: the Inka wanted to meld together the area’s religion, economics, and arts. Their methods were audacious, brutal, and efficient: they removed entire populations from their homelands; shuttled them around the biggest road system on the planet, a mesh of stone-paved thoroughfares totaling as much as 25,000 miles; and forced them to work with other groups, using only Runa Sumi [Quechua], the Inka language, on massive, faraway state farms and construction projects. To monitor this cyclopean enterprise, the Inka developed a form of writing unlike any other, sequences of knots on strings that formed a binary code reminiscent of today’s computer languages. So successful were the Inka at remolding their domain, according to the late John H. Rowe, an eminent archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, that Andean history ‘begins, not with the Wars of [South American] Independence or with the Spanish Conquest, but with the organizing genius of [empire founder] Pachakuti in the fifteenth century.’

Map of Tawantinsuyu, including the Inca system of highways (Wikimedia Commons)

While the European monarchs struggled to administer the territories under their dominion, the Sapa Inca ruled over the largest empire in the world, Tawantinsuyu, “Land of the Four Provinces.” Rather than top-down government, which had taken root in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, Tawantinsuyu ran on the more effective bottom-up style, though with all the authority originating in one place, Cuzco, the imperial capital. Each province had its own governor, a man of royal Inca blood, who was elected not by the people of his province but by a four man council, the Apucama, presided over by the Sapa Inca himself. “There was no class of idle rich, although doubtless a highly placed man was not obliged to work himself into decline,” write Edward Hyams and George Ordish in The Last of the Incas: The Rise and Fall of an American Empire:

But even the provincial governors, or cucuricucs, each of whom was responsible for a region more than twice the size of New York State and for millions of people, were not ‘irresponsible.’ Just as the chunca-camayoc had to make a monthly return about his ten charges, so did the provincial governor have to report in full and at regular intervals to the capital. It seems that he could not even dismiss an incompetent officer without getting his decision confirmed by the Apucama. The Incas, with their remarkable, and perhaps unique, ‘instinct’ for good government–an ‘instinct’ bred in them, as we have seen, by the nature of the Peruvian soil and the conditions upon which that soil could be made to support a great community–were aware that their system entailed danger of abuses of power. Consequently, among the duties of the cucuricuc was that of receiving complaints of such abuses direct from the victim, investigating, and punishing the official concerned. In minor cases of this order, no appeal to Cuzco was allowed. But in a bad case, the cucuricuc could not deal with it summarily; he had to refer it to the Apucama or to the Sapa Inca.

Co-written in the early 1960s by a regular contributor for The New Statesman (who also wrote a biography of Proudhon), Last of the Incas paints the Inca Empire with a socialistic brush, though there is nothing in Mann’s 2006 book to refute such a depiction. (I’ll have to see what Kim MacQuarrie says in his 2007 book, The Last Days of the Incas.) Plus socialism has as two of its end goals the elimination of money and markets, and there appears to have been neither of any kind in Tawantinsuyu. As Hyams and Ordish stress, however, the topographical extremes of South America and their attendant agricultural and administrative challenges — and not some “instinct” for socialism — are what forced Tawantinsuyu to adopt a more communistic form of government. The empire was vast but dominated by Andean mountains and foothills, and so arable land was limited, at least much more so than in Europe. Sources of water for drinking and farming were few and far between, especially in the more than 40,000 square miles of the Atacama Desert along the Pacific Coast, and the towering peaks of the Andes made distances all the more formidable. Simply put, the Inca realized early on that if they were not only to survive but to thrive in such a harsh and beautiful landscape, they could only do it through cooperation, at both the local and imperial levels.

See, for instance, how Hyams and Ordish describe the way in which resources were allocated under Inca rule:

All the land in the Tahuantinsuyu was divided into three parts: one for the people, one for the Sapa Inca (that is, the state), and one for the Sun (that is, the Church). Contrary to what some writers have maintained, this division was not an equal one; the parts were not mathematical thirds. The partition was accomplished by the following rule: The productive power of an ayllu‘s [‘an enlarged family group’] land was considered in relation to the number of people to be fed, clothed, housed and otherwise provided for at a planned standard of living. This standard insured health to all and gave a reasonable livelihood to every man, woman and child in return for a reasonable stint of work, which did not exceed the worker’s capacity and left him adequate leisure. The amount of land required to achieve this standard was set aside for the people; what remained was divided into two parts–we do not know in what proportion–for the state and the Church. In regions where the land was ungrateful and unyielding, the part allowed to state and church would have been small, in some cases very small; on the other hand, in fertile places it might have been larger than the people’s part. But to this we should add that the ‘welfare’ fund–those huge stores accumulated in warehouses all over the country to provide for the sick, the invalid, the military commissariat and the communications apparatus, and to compensate for bad harvests–came out of the Sapa Inca’s produce, and thus the people also had their share of the state’s part. [emphasis mine] Furthermore the civil and military services were supported out of that part. In short, the Inca’s third was simply the national revenue. …

No debt could be required of a man’s heirs after his death. (Debts and legacies consisted of personal chattels–not, of course, either real estate or money, neither of which existed.) Useful plants and animals had long been protected by law; under Topa Yupanqui the laws became stern. A man who wantonly cut down fruit trees or valuable timber trees could be condemned to death, an admirably motivated enactment, although the punishment might now be considered excessive. The wastage of food was illegal except by the Sapa Inca for whom it was obligatory, a ritualization of conspicuous consumption. …

It is fair to say that on the whole the laws were more liberal and punishments were less savage than those in force in Europe at the same epoch. And, as far as we can judge, serious crime in the empire was rare.

The biggest lie about America, one especially reiterated in the United States and especially refuted by Mann, is that the continent was almost completely unpopulated and untouched. The lie may have arose for two reasons: First, when the first colonizers settled in what would become the United States in the early 1600’s, the Indian population had been nearly wiped out already by over a century of smallpox, measles, the flu and other diseases carried over the ocean by the Europeans and the livestock they hauled with them.

A page from the Florentine Codex in the 16th century depicts Mexican Indians dying of smallpox (Wikimedia Commons)

As Mann writes concerning the devastation which swept through Inca lands:

[The Inca ruler] Wayna Qhapaq died in the first smallpox epidemic [in 1525]. The virus struck Tawantinsuyu again in 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. Each time the consequences were beyond the imagination of our fortunate age. ‘They died by scores and hundreds,’ recalled one eyewitness to the 1565 outbreak. ‘Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the field or piled up in the houses or huts. . . . The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach. They escaped the foul disease, but only to be wasted by famine.’ In addition, Tawantinsuyu was invaded by other European pestilences, to which the Indians were equally susceptible. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza in 1558 (together with smallpox), diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618–all flensed the remains of Inka culture. Taken as a whole, [the anthropologist Henry] Dobyns thought, the epidemics must have killed nine out of ten of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu.

Dobyns was not the first to arrive at this horrific conclusion. But he was the first to put it together with the fact that smallpox visited before anyone in South America had even seen Europeans. The most likely source of the virus, Dobyns realized, was the Caribbean. Smallpox was recorded to have appeared on the island of Hispaniola in November or December 1518. It killed a third of the native population before jumping to Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spaniards, exposed in childhood to the virus, were mostly immune. During Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, an expedition led by Pánfil0 de Narváez landed on April 23, 1520, near what is today the city of Veracruz. According to several Spanish accounts, the force included an African slave named Francisco Eguía or Baguía who had smallpox. Other reports say that the carriers were Cuban Indians whom Narváez had brought as auxiliaries. In any case, someone brought the virus–and infected a hemisphere.

The disease raced to Tenochtitlan, leading city of the Mexica (Aztecs), where it laid waste to the metropolis and then the rest of the empire. From there, Dobyns discovered, colonial accounts show smallpox hopscotching through Central America to Panama. At that point it was only a few hundred miles from the Inka frontier. The virus seemingly crossed the gap, with catastrophic consequences.

Then Dobyns went further. When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, he argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled the virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in places that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.

According to Dobyns — and, by implication, Mann and the current consensus on the European colonization of America — a large percentage of Indians died not only after they came in contact with the colonizers, but long before the colonizers physically reached them. In other words, everywhere the Europeans explored, their diseases preceded them. So the question is: How many Indians were living in America before Colón’s three ships set sail from Spain?

Inca agricultural terraces at Moray, Peru (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1928, in what Mann describes as “the first careful estimate of the indigenous population,” an ethnographer at the Smithsonian Institution named James Mooney put the pre-Columbian population of North America at a little over a million people. Only a few years later, however, a Berkeley anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, cut Mooney’s figure back to 900,000, estimating the population of the whole hemisphere before Colón’s arrival to be 8.4 million. Then, beginning in the 1950s, the physiologist Sherburne Cook and the Berkeley historian Woodrow Borah published joint studies placing the pre-contact population of central Mexico at 25.2 million. “By contrast,” writes Mann, “Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants. Central Mexico, they said, was the most densely populated place on earth, with more than twice as many people per square mile than China or India.”

Cook’s and Borah’s astonishingly high estimate set the stage for Dobyn’s own startling revision, which appeared in the pages of Current Anthropology in 1966.

More from Mann:

Based on their work and his own, Dobyns argued that the Indian population in 1491 was between 90 and 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that when Columbus sailed more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.

According to a 1999 estimate from the United Nations, the earth’s population in the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. If Dobyns was right, disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by the first third of the seventeenth century. All these numbers are at best rough approximations, but their implications are clear: the epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. According to W. George Lovell, a geographer at Queen’s University in Ontario, it was ‘the greatest destruction of lives in human history.’ [emphasis mine]

The second reason that the lie about an uncultivated, lightly populated America persists is due to this last part. Unwilling to be viewed as the authors of what some now term a genocide, even a holocaust, the Europeans were inclined to belittle the societies they discovered already thriving on the continent they had come to colonize. That the staggering potential of American lands was being wasted by a less advanced and less populated people later became a major feature of Manifest Destiny — the notion, popular in the 19th century, that the United States was destined to conquer the whole continent, and then the world. By lowering the initial Indian population, the European conquerors — and now their descendants — hoped to diminish the severity of the carnage they let loose, lessen the seriousness of their theft and, thus, erase some of their guilt.

“History,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru, “is almost always written by the victors and conquerors and gives their view.” The victors’ history, and their view, is what is then taught to posterity, generation after generation, until it fossilizes into something very like a national myth; and national myths — because they are so commonly believed, and also, ironically, because they are myths — are rarely questioned. But after reading Mann’s illuminating book, followed by Hyams’ and Ordish’s The Last of the Incas, a new, fuller image of pre-Columbian America comes into focus: that of a continent not dotted but brimming with humanity; of a land not pristine but as thoroughly worked and reshaped as the rice terraces of the Ming Dynasty; and of Indian societies not backward but in many ways far more advance, in their elimination of poverty and other social polices, than the naked brutality of European feudalism at the time.


Featured image: ‘The Great City of Tenochtitlan’ by Diego Rivera/Wikimedia Commons

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino "artivist" site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including the Huffington Post. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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