Every once in a while history presents as fact something so wildly improbable that it would be dismissed as feasible fiction. Such an event happened in the sixteenth century.
Late in 1518, an expeditionary force of less than 600 Europeans set sail from Cuba. Their intent was to conquer the Aztec empire, starting with its capital. Considering the fact that the Aztec empire has been estimated to have had a population of around 30 million, and its capital a population of 300,000, this was hutzpa of a pretty high order.
After some mis-adventures, Hernando Cortes’ tiny army finally laid siege to the city of Mexico in 1521. On August 13, he marched into the conquered city.
How did he do it? How did such a tiny force (even including its Indian allies) manage to conquer a huge city ideally built for defense?
The answer is that by then it was a city of the dead. Room after room, house after house, all the Spaniards found were corpses. Smallpox had killed the Aztecs, first by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands more had fled the dying city.
Smallpox helped the conquest in two ways. First, it had devastated the Aztec army and capital, making it ripe for the picking. Perhaps more importantly, by killing the Indians and leaving the Spanish untouched, it proved to both sides on whose side God stood. The impact on the Aztecs’ will to resist was devastating.
As the Spanish happily busied themselves looting Mexico city (including robbing all those corpses), smallpox was conquering the rest of the empire for them. The thousands who had fled the city returned to their home villages carrying the plague with them. Before most ever saw a Spaniard, or even heard of them, the Aztecs died by the millions.
Other plagues followed. By 1568, it is estimated that Mexico held three million Indians. In other words, ninety per cent of them had died in less than fifty years.
But it did not stop with Mexico. The Americas were linked by traders. Archeologists have found California seashells all across the continent. Now diseases followed the trade routes.
It has been estimated that North and South America held a population of one hundred million when Columbus landed. By 1568, the same estimates reduce that number to 10 million. Mexico served as the model for the rest of the Americas. Successive waves of disease swept through thousands of villages that never saw a white man, waging an unimaginable slaughter.
History depends on literacy. But these were substantially pre-literate societies. What happened in those years lies in the shadows outside the area lighted by history. We have to use our imaginations.
It is almost certain that no such catastrophe had ever struck the Americas. The Amer-Indians had had tens of thousands of unbroken years to build their cultures. We can assume that they were rich, complicated and (in pre-literate terms) sophisticated.
We know that all of that culture, all of that knowledge, all of that lore had to be passed down by word of mouth in unbroken chains, from father to son, uncle to nephew, mother to daughter. We can only imagine how many of those fragile trains of lore were broken by disease and death. With ninety percent of the people dead in so short a time, something on the same order of those chains must have been broken. Society must have crumbled nearly to chaos.
And more. People have always taken plagues to be evidence of God’s disfavor. Amongst the survivors, even those ancient traditions that were saved must have lost considerable value. We can imagine that some would have been simply abandoned as being at best ineffectual and at worst condemned. Others would have been seen as needing substantial alteration to regain God’s favor.
Then, too, whole areas of the continents were substantially depopulated. That and the introduction of the horse produced massive migrations as the tribes shifted around, trying to establish a new equilibrium. Traditions would have had to be re-made to match the new conditions.
Looking at North America, in the beginning, the Spanish, the French, and the English were few. Their rate of conquest, trade and settlement was slow. The 1500’s belonged to the Spanish. The Aztecs and the Inca empires fell. In the North, De Soto wandered through Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. Coronado got to Albuquerque. Others got as far North as Kansas. In the 1600’s, Champlain explored all the way to the Great Lakes and other Frenchmen established trading posts along the Mississippi. In the same century, the English arrived, but they hugged the East Coast.
In short, the North American Indians had at least a century and some as long as two and a half centuries to recover from the holocaust before they encountered the white man in any substantial way.
The real Gold Rush did not begin until the late 1700’s. America found itself traversed by avid devotees of Rousseau (Caitlin, Bodmer, etc.) who pushed ever further West, drawing pads in hand, to record the “primitive” Indians before the white man’s ways had corrupted them. The gold they sought was to encounter man “in his original state,” noble, brave and close to Nature. In their minds, they were seeing the unbroken lineage of natural man, untouched by civilization, stretching back to time immemorial. They Romantically recorded all they saw, mining the vein they saw with great enthusiasm.
The late 1800’s century brought a second phase of the Gold Rush, the social Darwinists. They were intent upon proving that the Indians were downtrodden because they we simply less evolved than the whites. Consciously Un-Romantic, they were unconscious apologists for the rape of all that was Indian. Their deafness to the worth of Indian values and traditions has to be read to be believed. But they, too, thought they were analyzing the “primitive” Indian culture which had lain static and unchanged while the whites races were evolving their superior societies. They, too, mined their vein, taking thousands of pictures and writing everything down.
The late 1900’s has brought a third Rush. Romanticism has risen again, in a less scholarly form. The books lists have been deluged with endless paeans of praise of the Indians’ closeness to their environment balanced by ferocious condemnations of the white man’s crimes against the environment and the noble, natural and inoffensive red men. Alongside the unscholarly Romanticism, sober anthropologists have labored to excavate the “real” pre-Columbian Indians.
In my opinion, the mighty labors of all three Rush’s have found a great deal of : iron pyrite. They have all sought to capture Pre-Columbian culture and they have all, inevitably, failed.
We will never know what the pre-Columbian societies were like. They died, along with their beliefs, in the shadows. All that we can study is the painfully reconstructed cultures of the few survivors. Buried within are undoubtedly fragments of what had gone before, but so hidden, so edited and altered that even if we could distinguish which bits had real antiquity, we would be lost to know their original shape. Still less can we isolate those bits and use them to delineate the cultures that bred them.
What we find to study is often beautiful and valuable in its own right, recent though it is. But in terms of Pre-Columbian truth, it is merely Fool’s Gold.