In the opening tutorial of my second year Canadian History class, a question was posed: When was North America discovered? This is, as we shortly figured, a highly debatable issue. In the fifteenth century Columbus stumbled across it quite by accident, expecting to find Asia; so it feels strange to say that Columbus discovered the Americas. After landing at the mouth of what is now the St. Lawrence River in Canada, various European nations barely even made their way inland, instead communicating through locals who acted as proxies for trade and survival. So these European inhabitants did not discover even a fraction of the full scope of the Americas. Did the ancients who walked across the Bering Straight via ice mass discover the Americas? But does a community following animal herds for survival really intentionally discover something?
For me, one of the main takeaways from the discussion was the fact that society stigmatizes the Americas as being “discovered” at one point or another. Really it was discovered as much as Africa or Europe or Asia were discovered. This land has always been here. However, the story of its changing residents over the past centuries is fascinating and strangely overlooked.
Back to European “discovery,” circa 1500 AD. The moment when Europeans got over the awkward arrival stage and carried out a settlement proper on the New Land, they began to write the continent’s history. This is unfortunate: many stories exist before the arrival of these nations, and indeed during the various phases of arrival as well. In the quest for power (and as Alistair Horne would quote, in the quest of la gloire in the case of the French), Native peoples were seen as something to be eliminated or at least subverted. The Europeans did not have a chance to inflict intentional damage as the virgin soil epidemics wiped out an incredible proportion of the population – such was the effect of these new diseases from which the Americans were not immune. Some estimates of the mortality rate run as high as 90%. And before this epic disruption, how did these people, who rarely if ever left written records, live? What were their values, how were their communities structured? Before 1492, a world of fascinating history emerges when serious effort to find it is applied.
Here is where archaeology takes over and historians begin to re-construct stories through objects, painting iconic pictures of huge and sweeping temporal grandeur (with audacious precision), and then relating in hushed tones anecdotes of simple personal effect (with humane intonations).
We learn about the movement of people through simple items discarded and forgotten. The Clovis Spear Point, that standard arrowhead that we picture when thinking of ancient cavemen, is a telling indication of where humans went. In particular, over the Bering Straight (15,000 years ago), down through the Rockies into the heart of America, and further downward to the southernmost point of South America (12,000 years ago).
On a deeper note, we learn about the similarity of the spiritual nature between races of humans. The Taino people (then living in modern-day Dominican Republic) left behind a religious ritual seat from which we can tell that (1) these people craved for otherworldly guidance, from gods and from ancestors; (2) that they assigned a special societal status to an individual privileged to lead them in gaining this guidance; and (3) that perhaps, had these people survived the Spanish arrival to their continent, we might have been able to draw even more parallels between their societal development and that of the Western world. Humans irrevocably develop similar spiritual tendencies, even when they become separated by oceans.
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When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they were treated to many exotic and original sights, I’m sure; but I particularly like the following illustrative example. A stunned group of Europeans stands and watches a group of locals play a simple game of ball. They are shocked because the ball is bouncing all over the place as if it has a life of its own and is consciously out-running the players who are managing to control its trajectory, seemingly against all odds. Rubber, of course, originated in South America.
This is a nice bridge to the period of intercommunication that followed – an ancient game of soccer, a beginning of a trade transaction, the sport a type of a common understanding. We see the European and North American peoples colliding in development once more; re-instating communication, trade, development, and ultimately, the creation of a new – and collective – chapter of history.