Native ingenuity: Scholars have known for decades that Native American societies were in many ways more technologically sophisticated than their European counterparts. So why do we still find this fact so surprising?

Charles C. Mann – The Boston Globe

Indigenous American societies may not have had steel for weapons, but the Inca did highly sophisticated work with other metals. Above, a 16th-century engraving showing goldsmiths in Quito.
Indigenous American societies may not have had steel for weapons, but the Inca did highly sophisticated work with other metals. Above, a 16th-century engraving showing goldsmiths in Quito.
| September 4, 2005
LIKE EVERY AMERICAN schoolchild, I learned the story of the Pilgrims in school–how half of the Plymouth colonists died of starvation in the first winter, the remainder surviving only by squatting on an abandoned Indian village and ransacking Indian homes and graves for caches of food. But it was only as an adult, visiting the splendid reconstruction of the colony in Plymouth, that it occurred to me to wonder why the local Wampanoag Indians had let them stay.
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The Wampanoag confederation, which occupied coastal Massachusetts, was bigger and more numerous than the Plymouth colony, and jealous of its territory. Why would it let these foreigners, whom the Indians must have regarded as thieves and interlopers, occupy a valuable piece of coastal real estate? For that matter, why did Indians permit any of the first European colonies–all of which were poor, fractious, and ill-prepared–in North America?
When I asked one of the authentically costumed, ”living history” workers at the reconstructed village why the Indians hadn’t driven away the Pilgrims, she told me that the Wampanoag wanted European goods, especially metal items like cook pots, hatchets, and guns. Her explanation precisely reflected the Pilgrims’ view. After the Wampanoag signed an alliance with the colony, Edward Winslow, a future Plymouth governor, wrote that the Indians were lured by superior European technology–especially European guns, ”for our peeces [guns] are terrible unto them.”
In my American history classes such stories recurred time and time again. Although European colonies were feeble at the outset, the teachers explained, they eventually triumphed over the natives because of their better technology. This explanation is still common today. ”The fires of modernization and industrialization…never took light over most of the non-European world,” explains historian Eric L. Jones in ”The European Miracle,” a widely cited text. ”Europe was a mutant civilization in its uninterrupted amassing of knowledge about technology.” Native Americans, poor laggards, didn’t have a chance.
Contemporary research suggests, though, that this picture is too simple. Indeed, the conventional view of Indians’ technological backwardness says less about the relative sophistication of the two societies than our own abiding misconceptions about the nature of technology. As the University of Texas historian Alfred W. Crosby has noted, in Columbus’s day Europe ”had a greater proportion of individuals who understood wheels, levers, and gears than any other society on earth.” Perhaps naturally, European elites ranked other societies by the number and complexity of their mechanical devices, a practice still commonly followed by their descendants. Living in the bubble of our own computers and automobiles, we tend to think of technology in terms of electricity, plastic and metal, motors and wheels.
In fact, the term ”technology” refers to any application of a systematic technique, method, or approach for practical purposes. Colonial accounts suggest that Europeans then viewed technology in these broad terms–and that they were impressed by what they saw in Native American hands. Specialists have argued this for a couple of decades, but this view of history has made few inroads outside academic journals and conference reports. To the first European visitors, the encounter with Indians was much more like a meeting of equals than is commonly taught today.
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Consider a single, small example: Indian moccasins. Much more comfortable and waterproof than stiff, moldering English boots, moccasins were often given by Indians to colonists when the latter had to walk for long distances.
Indian birch-bark canoes, to take another example, were faster and more maneuverable than any small European boat. In 1605 three laughing Indians in a canoe literally paddled circles around the lumbering dory paddled by traveler George Weymouth and seven other men. Despite official disapproval, the stunned British eagerly exchanged knives and guns for Indian canoes. Bigger European ships with sails were obviously better for long-distance travel along the shore. Indians got hold of them through trade and shipwreck, and trained themselves to be excellent sailors. By the time of the Pilgrims, a rising proportion of the shipping traffic along the New England coast was of indigenous origin and the English were fearful, Harvard historian Joyce E. Chaplin has argued, ”that Indians might get the upper hand.”
Most important, the foreigners, coming from lands plagued by recurrent famine, were awed by Indian agriculture. Based on maize, which yields more grain per acre than any other cereal, it used sophisticated techniques that kept the land fertile in ways that Europeans had not seen. A 2003 commentary in the journal Science described the creation of maize as ”arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”
Even the Europeans’ purported superiority in military technology was evanescent. The ”peeces” that Winslow thought the Wampanoag wanted, for example, were less than they seemed. To be sure, Indians were disconcerted by their first experiences with European guns: the explosion and smoke, the lack of a visible projectile. But the natives quickly learned that 16th-century matchlocks were fired by shoving a flaming fuse into an open pan of gunpowder, a process that took two or three minutes for every shot. In any case, most of the colonists were such dreadful shots, from lack of practice, that their muskets were little more than noisemakers.
By contrast, Indian longbows were fearsomely fast and precise–”far better than the average musket of the Plymouth colonists in rapidity and accuracy of fire,” according to the noted arms scholar Harold L. Peterson. Wielded by people who had practiced archery since childhood, they could shoot 10 arrows a minute and were accurate up to 200 yards. To the dismay of colonists at Jamestown in 1607, a Powhatan Indian sank an arrow a foot deep into a target the Europeans thought impervious to an arrow shot–”which was strange,” Jamestown council president George Percy observed, ”being that a Pistoll could not pierce it.”
Similar stories played out across the hemisphere. Schoolchildren still learn that superior European technology let Francisco Pizarro and a force of 168 Spaniards conquer the Inca in 1532. Pizarro, textbooks say, had two advantages: steel (swords and armor, rifles and cannons) and horses. (Geographer Jared Diamond, in his 1994 bestseller ”Guns, Germs, and Steel,” echoes this point.) The Indians had no steel weapons and no animals to ride (llamas are too small). They also lacked the wheel and the arch. With such inferior technology, the Inca had no chance. ”What could [the Inca] offer against this armory?” asked John Hemming, author of a fine history of the conquest. ”They were still fighting in the bronze age.”
Yet just as guns did not determine the outcome of conflict in New England, steel was not the decisive factor in Peru. True, anthropologists have long marveled that Andean societies did not make steel. Iron is plentiful in the mountains, yet the Inca used metal for almost nothing useful. But according to Heather Lechtman, an archaeologist at the MIT Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology, Inca metallurgy was as refined as European metallurgy, but it had such different goals that until recently scientists had not even recognized it as a technology.
Europeans, Lechtman argues in scholarly articles, sought to optimize metals’ ”hardness, strength, toughness, and sharpness.” The Inca, by contrast, valued ”plasticity, malleability, and toughness.” Europeans used metal for tools; Andean societies primarily used it as a token of wealth, power, and community affiliation. European metalworkers tended to create metal objects by pouring molten alloys into shaped molds. Such foundries were not unknown to the Inca, but Andean societies vastly preferred to hammer metal into thin sheets, form the sheets around molds, and solder the results. The results were remarkable by any standard–one delicate bust that Lechtman analyzed was less than an inch tall but made of 22 separate gold plates painstakingly joined.
Andean cultures did make tools, of course. But in the technosphere of the Andes, Lechtman explains, ”people solved basic engineering problems through the manipulation of fibers,” not by creating and joining hard wooden or metal objects. To make boats, Andean cultures wove together reeds rather than cutting up trees into planks and nailing them together. Although smaller than big European ships, these vessels were not puddle-muddlers; Europeans first encountered the Inca in the form of an Inca ship sailing near the equator, 300 miles from its home port, under a load of fine cotton sails. It had a crew of 20 and was easily the size of a Spanish caravel.
Andean textiles were woven with great precision–elites’ garments could have a thread count of 500 per inch–and structured in elaborate layers. Soldierly armor was made from sculpted, quilted cloth that was almost as effective at shielding the body as European armor and much lighter. After trying it, the conquistadors ditched their steel breastplates and helmets wholesale and dressed like Inca infantry.
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Pedro Pizarro, Francisco’s nephew and page, survived enough bloody battles with the Inca to be under no illusions about indigenous technology. In his memoirs, he attributed the Spanish victory not to overwhelming European technology but to overwhelming European diseases. A few years before Pizarro arrived, smallpox–introduced from Europe via Mexico–swept the Inca realm, killing the emperor, his chosen heir, much of the court and the military leadership, and as many as one out of three inhabitants of the empire. The vacancy at the top led to a ruinous, multi-year civil war that killed thousands more. ”[Had the emperor] been alive when we Spaniards entered this land,” Pedro remarked, ”it would have been impossible for us to win it…. And likewise, had the land not been divided by the [smallpox-induced civil] wars, we would not have been able to enter or win the land.” Germs, not guns or steel, conquered the Inca.
The same held true in the Northeast–the region wasn’t conquered so much as infected. By the time of the Pilgrims, Europeans had been visiting New England for a century. Thickly populated and heavily armed, Indian villages had welcomed the trade but fended off permanent settlement. In 1616 a French ship wrecked off Cape Cod. Indians captured the few survivors and distributed them into different villages. At least one sailor had a disease, perhaps viral hepatitis, which he bequeathed to his captors. The results were devastating. Indians ”died on heapes, as they lay in their houses,” the English trader Thomas Morton wrote. Death rates in coastal New England reached 95 percent. Among the victims were the great majority of Wampanoag.
Although statements like Morton’s are scattered throughout colonial accounts, most historians did not take note of them until 30 years ago, and they still have not percolated into high-school lesson plans. Part of the reason for the holdup, no doubt, is due to the disciplinary boundaries that long kept historians of politics and historians of science apart. But another part, one assumes, is simple ethnocentrism, an intellectual vice in every society. Europeans and their descendants have long assumed that cultures were behind the intellectual eight ball if they didn’t do things Europeans were good at. But this view may only be the luxury of those whose triumphs were ensured by microorganisms that they neither understood nor controlled.
Charles C. Mann is the author of ”1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” which has just been published by Knopf.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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