Photo by Russ McCabe on Unsplash

The master narrative of civilization in the Americas claims that brave European explorers “discovered” continents sparsely populated by stone age hunter-gatherers who had no use for land titles. When the hunting played out or the harvest season for fruits and vegetables ended, the Natives moved on, leaving little evidence of their presence other than grave goods and the remains of buffalo jumps or fish camps.

This master narrative proved the Americas to be terra nullius, nobody’s land, empty property ripe for the taking by men who knew how to use it in a civilized manner.

Civilizations are judged by their arts and sciences, which are known to subsequent generations by physical evidence or not at all. Where you find evidence of civilizations that have been productive in this sense, there must have been a relatively sedentary population that produced an agricultural surplus.

Surplus food is required to feed artists and scientists. Great art and important scientific discoveries require time to think and time to put together some representation of what you thought so your descendants will have it and so other civilizations that do not exist yet will find evidence of what you accomplished.

Hunters and gatherers may get very good at making the tools of their respective trades and they may even decorate their tools if they have time, but what they leave to be discovered is mostly personal equipment. The custom of burying personal equipment with the owner is common and is the source of a lot of friction between archaeologists and indigenous people, but the hunt for ancient civilizations is not about grave robbing. Cities and large scale farming operations leave more substantial evidence.

Some of the ruins the colonists encountered were hard to shoehorn into the master narrative.

The Cahokia Mounds are located on the Mississippi River near present day St. Louis. The early writings on the Cahokia Mounds calculated the number of person-hours that would have been necessary for such a construction and drew the conclusion that American Indians could not have built it. Leaving Cahokia a mystery also leaves the mound ruins located in many parts of the Mississippi watershed unexplained.

The ruins at Chaco Canyon in the Navajo Nation present a similar problem of scale, but the pueblos in the Rio Grande watershed also challenge the master narrative because they were found by the Spanish in their current locations and archaeology shows the pueblos to have been in place long before the Spanish arrived.

The ruins of great cities in Latin America were explained. The Spanish subjugated the Aztecs who built Tenochtitlan and the Incas who built Cuzco. The Mayan capital at Tikal flourished between 600 B.C.E. and 900 C.E. The Spanish found Mayan ruins from the Yucatan in Mexico all the way down to Central America. Mayan cities, like Cahokia and Chaco in North America, declined before Europeans arrived.

The master narrative teaches that excepting the Aztecs and the Incas and the Rio Grande Pueblos, there were no landowners in the Americas to be dispossessed by conquest. Hunter-gatherers could simply move.

Atlantic coastal tribes first encountered by the English colonists were growing corn as a staple food, not gathering it. They were killed or chased away by military action and they wound up where the colonists sent inconvenient memories, to be replaced by the myth of the first Thanksgiving and the mythologized life of a real person named Pocahontas.

The Five Nations in the St. Lawrence watershed were also sedentary farmers. They became the Six Nations and they defended themselves well enough that they still occupy remnants of their aboriginal lands. The confederation of towns that became the Cherokee Nation also produced agricultural surplus, but they were less successful in protecting their property.

There were always holes in the master narrative of the Americas as nobody’s land. Science continues to punch more holes.

Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, British geographers writing in Nature, proposed that a massive die-off of indigenous peoples in the Americas has left enough permanent global evidence to define a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

Lewis and Maslin claim the collision between the so-called Old World and New World caused a dip in atmospheric CO2 that is measurable worldwide. All measurements point to 1610 as the low point in the dip. The cause of the dip has a great impact on historians’ arguments over American Indian body count from contact with Europeans.

How do dead Indians cause lower atmospheric CO2? When farmers die off, their fields go fallow. When the fields go fallow, forests take over, and forests are gigantic carbon sinks.

The calculation in Nature is that the European invasion caused deaths of approximately 50 million people farming 1.3 hectares per person which should sequester between 7 and 14 petagrams of carbon over 100 years, the difference in numbers having to do with how much of the farming was “slash and burn” agriculture, which gives off more CO2.

Maximum human mortality would happen decades after first contact in 1492 and maximum carbon uptake from the fallow farms would take another 20–50 years, suggesting a date between 1550 and 1650. Ice core CO2 measurements narrow the date to 1610.

How could 50 million farmers disappear without a trace? Tropical jungles and rainforests can hide a lot of evidence. Rediscovery of ancient civilizations is one of the few upsides of modern ranchers burning the rainforests.

From a site in Brazil called Rego Grande, archaeoastronomy scholars have found a sophisticated observatory buried in the Brazilian jungle. Rego Grande adds to fortified settlements connected by road networks that could not be seen under the forest canopy.

Jennifer Watling, an archaeologist at the University of São Paulo, and nine colleagues from Brazil and the U.K., published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences still more evidence of indigenous civilization swallowed by the rainforest.

Burning uncovered an extensive and previously little known complex of man-made geometric earthworks, dubbed by the scientists “geoglyphs.” They appear to have been built about 2,000 years ago. The study dated human agriculture in the area to 4,000 years ago.

Microscopic analysis of debris around the geoglyphs created a 6,000-year environmental history of the geoglyph sites, enabling Watling and her colleagues to demonstrate that the indigenous people had developed sustainable agricultural practices for the rainforest long before Europeans began wanton destruction of those same rainforests in the service of raising cattle.

The master narrative of the uncivilized Americas serves the legal doctrine of terra nullius and explains theft and homicide on a massive scale. The settlers, to avoid being called perpetrators, may need a new story.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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