The tragic demise of the Americas’ native civilisations has too long distracted from its impressive cultural feats, argues Colin McEwan
Yet successive visitors have been as likely to dismiss America’s native population as they have been to praise it. Writing some 300 years after Cortés, Charles Darwin described the Yahgan canoe Indians of Tierra del Fuego as “the most miserable wretches on the face of the earth”, living on the very lowest rung of human existence. He would not have been aware that for decades, passing whalers and seal hunters had decimated the colonies of marine mammals upon which the Yahgan depended, introducing contagious disease and alcohol along the way, with devastating consequences.
These wildly divergent accounts have coloured the European imagination to such an extent that pre-Columbian peoples and cultures are still prone to be tagged as primitive and mysterious. Prior to modern archaeological research, the ancient history of the Americas was framed within a greatly foreshortened and unrealistic timescale; only recently have we learned to appreciate that the rise of civilisation on this side of the globe broadly parallels advances elsewhere in the world, albeit with its own distinctive character.