The Americas: The old New World

The tragic demise of the Americas’ native civilisations has too long distracted from its impressive cultural feats, argues Colin McEwan

Archaeologists marvel at a monumental Olmec stone head dug up at La Venta, Mexico in 1947Archaeologists marvel at a monumental Olmec stone head dug up at La Venta, Mexico in 1947 Photograph: Richard Hewitt/CorbisOriginal civilisations developed in just a select handful of places across the globe. Two of these – the Andes and Mesoamerica – are found in the last continental landmass to be colonised by humanity. From the frozen reaches of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, across the high grassland plains of North America, through the equatorial tropics and down the spine of the Andes to Patagonia at the uttermost end of the earth, the Americas boast an extraordinary range of landscapes and climates. These presented great challenges to human adaptive capacities and produced some remarkable and ingenious responses. In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his party first beheld the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan as if floating on the shimmering waters of Lake Texcoco, in the Basin of Mexico. His incredulous companion Bernal Diaz extolled the vision of this great island metropolis, with its temples, plazas, ordered streets, gardens and causeways, as “surpassing anything to be seen in all of Europe”. 

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.

Read more in the Guardian

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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