Prehistory ≠ No History

One of my instructors pointed out an interesting naïve misconception about non-Western cultures most of still have. Basically we naïvely assume the different “non-literate” cultures we encounter in the America, Africa and Australia have 1) never changed and 2) never moved. We also make this same assumption about any “ancient” European culture as well.
Even non-Western Empires are treated as “glacial” entities in which individual political leaders are almost irrelevant to the development of civilization. Compare this to our view of Western history where most of us can still name an Roman Emperor or two (even if we’re not quite sure what they did).
Sadly this view is still perpetuated (or at least not disputed) in many popular press books on “ancient times” and it’s just as bad in History Channel type documentaries.
But the Americas alone had 10,000+ years of time for people to interact with each other, so it’s highly unlikely that nothing happened. And something (actually many somethings) did happen – one of the more prominent tribes, the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) was not a tribe at all, but a confederacy of six tribes. and yes they had a formal constitution.
Interestingly the more that historical linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists have investigated these cultures the clearer it becomes that wide trade networks had developed, (the kind that cross modern national boarder) and that there was plenty of “indigenous” politicking around. Linguists are finding that when they’re trying to reconstruct the history of various languages they’re having to carefully sort through “borrowings” versus “native” vocabulary first.
Yet I do sometimes signs of a change. One program about Aztec engineering actually named and tracked the various Aztec Emperors (Montezuma was actually Montezuma II/Moctezuma II). The dynasty may be long gone, but in some ways they left their mark on the West. Without the repressive policies of the Aztec empire, it’s unlikely Cortez would have been able to gather a coalition of native Mexicans to help them overthrough the Aztecs.
It’s just a shame the European colonial powers didn’t learn a lesson from this historic battle…
P.S. It must be said that contemporary European “explorers” and “governors” were aware of the complex interactions and were able to exploit them. This is why different Native American tribes would fight for the French or the English in the French and Indian War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *