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Native Intelligence (smithsonianmag.com)
56 points by moultano 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 16 comments

This is one of my all time favourite pieces. Whenever it comes up, I am also reminded of another piece which recounts what happened to the Native American populations and politics as if it were an invasion by space aliens following a plague that wiped out 95% of the population, can't find it at the moment but will keep looking.

Edit: here it is courtesy of the previous HN thread. https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/11/28/the-story-of-thanksgiv...

1491 and 1493 are two great books by the same author, delving deep into those topics. I enjoyed every line, and there was a lot of them :-)



These are some of the most fascinating books I've ever read. I really think anyone who lives in the new world should read them. Our default understanding of the land in which we live is so far off from the reality of its history.

These were some of the notes I took from when I read 1491:

The populations of Native North Americans that European colonists interacted with were the survivors of a continent-wide holocaust that wiped out 90-95% of their population. Smallpox spread through the interior of the content faster than Europeans explored it, leaving empty civilizations in its wake. One of the reasons there wasn’t a permanent European settlement on the eastern seaboard until over 100 years after Columbus is that until that point, the coast was too crowded with people already living there. The colonists set up in the ruins of towns that were entirely wiped out by disease. Squanto (Tisquantum) the Indian who school children will be hearing about a lot in the next week, attached himself to the Plymoth colony only after escaping from captivity in Europe and returning to his home to find everyone dead. The same plague swept through Meso- and South America, but the Spanish explored faster, so we know more about the civilizations that lived there.

Native North Americans are described as hunter gatherers, because that’s what people revert to after civilization collapses. When their cultures were intact, the land of entire eastern US was intensely managed by them through a combination of direct agriculture, regular burning to clear underbrush and encourage game species normally found in the plains to spread into the woodland, and selective planting.

At least 10% of the Amazon Rainforest was planted by the people who lived there. Rather than clearing land for agriculture, they created forest gardens, and this arboreal agriculture supported large complex civilizations that we know almost nothing about.

There are giant causeways made of earth and full of shards of pottery spreading through miles of flood plain in the Beni in Bolivia. They were only discovered in the 1960s. There was evidently a large civilization living there that we know nothing about. That’s the level of discovery that’s still possible in this subject: advanced civilizations that are new to science.

Ultimately, the thing that affected me the most that I will remember forever is the idea of “earth as garden.” Mankind has changed irrevocably every land it has settled. Even in the Americas, traditionally thought of as a nearly untouched wilderness until Europeans arrived, was intensely modified and cultivated by the people who lived there. Much of what today we think of as wilderness was in its time planted deliberately by people. The ethics of environmentalism constantly stumble over defining what “natural” is. I propose that there is no such thing. The whole earth is a garden. It’s enough to try to keep it that way.

Charles C. Mann is a genius among journalists. 1491 was mind-blowing for me, and I'm halfway through 1493 (equally good).

Most of what people were taught about pre-Columbian civilizations in America is wrong.

They were far more sophisticated than previously thought (and, for that matter, more sophisticated than Europe in a variety of ways), but their downfall was lack of immunity to Eurasian viruses. Reading 1491 is similar to the feeling one might have of encountering Chinese or Japanese civilization for the first time.

I would also like to plug a third book from Mann: The Wizard and the Prophet.


It's about two men, the godfathers of the Green Revolution and the modern environmental movement. The first, Borlaug, is a techno-optimist solving global hunger, while the second, Vogt, is a conservative vis a vis technology, modernity and demographics, and takes a Malthusian opposition to tech and growth.

I have come to see the conversation happening about tech, and between tech and mainstream American culture, as a conversation between wizards and prophets.

Neither side is wholly wrong, and both have good reasons as well as self-interest to believe what they do. But the way they understand the world is deeply different.

Fascinating, I've not read any of these books, but I'll stick them on top of my list. Do his books come to a conclusion on how to solve the "conflict" between the Wizard and the Prophet, it was hard to tell just reading the Amazon Reviews? Am I right in thinking it's worth reading 1491 first?

This might be a bit tangential, but I can't help but be reminded of this article on Two-Eyed Seeing, which says there's value in both the Western (scientific) view and the Indigenous (natural) view and they both have things to teach each other. http://www.integrativescience.ca/Principles/TwoEyedSeeing/

There's a brief video explaining in the above. http://www.integrativescience.ca/Media/Video/

It's a topic I've not been able to find much reference to, though there's also a TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bA9EwcFbVfg

P.S. Even more tangential, but coincidently I was only today reading an article about the agricultural system in use in the article, growing maize, beans and squash often with the use of fish heads which was quite advanced and also nutritional - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_(agriculture)

I would read 1491 before 1493, but you could certainly read wizard and prophet on either side of that. I don't think he has a solution to reconcile the wizards and the prophets. The two approaches are not at all mutually exclusive, but wizards try to find solutions for a larger population, while prophets seek to constrain the population. One point that he makes in 1491/1493 is that native civilizations manipulated the environment much more than previously thought. The Americas were very much a worked landscape before the Europeans landed. They were just worked by deliberate fire, rather than the plough. He says that there is evidence that 1/8th of California was burned every year, which puts our recent fires to shame. The balance of that landscape and its species was destroyed when the Indians were wiped out.

Can't help but note the description of a meeting between a strong, tall and healthy indigenous man versus short, unhealthy European explorer. I recall this being noted in a university course I took on early French Canadian history as well. Very soon the health of early colonists also eclipsed those back home.

While those in France needed the permission of the Seigneur(Lord) to kill a deer, and meat was a expensive food, First Nations and Colonists had an abundance of easily available game and fish, and had much more freedom to claim it for themselves.

(This is not to say that First Nations didn't have concepts of exclusive hunting/farming areas handed down through family and political ties, but in general, there was a lot more food to be had in NA!)

I don't think the European explorers could be described as unhealthy--they certainly wouldn't have lasted long if they were. Their lifestyles of back-breaking labor and heavy drinking probably didn't help.

Also, fun tidbit: they were short for economical reasons, 5'5" apparently being the optimal height for fur-trading. Anyone who was too tall would take up too much cargo space, and at that time fathers would consider it a bad thing for their sons to grow too tall.

I highly advise “The Wisdom of the Native Americans” [1] if anyone is interested in exploring in depth how sophisticated the Natives truly are. Curated from court cases with the US government, it pieces together a small slice of the oral tradition and its nothing short of astounding.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Native-Americans-Kent-Nerburn/...

Conversely, I picked up a book titled "All the Real Indians Died Off", which was intended to dispel such myths about Native Americans. One of the first chapters was an attack on the Bering land bridge hypothesis as "just a theory" with language that directly echoed creationist texts, which then went on to dismiss any suggestions that American Indians are descendants of migration and spiraled out to attack science itself. No alternative theory was put forward.

After that, I naturally flipped ahead to the chapter about the myth that "Indians are Anti-Science." It opened with the sentence, "Few people in the world have more reason to be anti-science than American Indians," then said that calling Indians anti-science is inflammatory, moved on to reject Western science as anti-Indian, and then redefined science as any passed-on knowledge that makes life easier. I didn't read the rest of the book.


Its purpose is to show the world from Tisquantum's perspective, not positive and negative. You can find an abundance of writing about Plymouth colony from other perspectives. That doesn't make either of them wrong.

The main protagonists are shown to have negative views of the immigrants. The Indians are presented as racists and judging people on superficial characteristics. That's probably the author's feelings being projected onto the subjects of his story. Yes, it makes it wrong if it's more historical imagination.

I guess I'm coming from a foreigner's perspective where I never read any of that writing from the pilgrim's perspective. All I see about Indians presents them as noble savages.

The intent isn't to present them as noble savages at all, but as real people with their own complicated motivations. The author is a white American and knows that he doesn't have to put any work in to humanize the European colonists. We do that by default. What requires work is to see them as the native people saw them, and to see native people not as caricatures or plot devices, but as agents themselves.

It's probably my different perspective not being an American. I haven't read those textbooks he mentions and all I hear about Indians is these blogs which present the same general picture. I understand now that Americans will have been exposed to different material at school so this could appear as a novel viewpoint.

Well, it’s a damn inconvenient truth for us, the whites. Although I immigrated to the US about 20 years ago I somehow identify with the western colonizers, after all I came to a country largely shaped by them. So at least one thing I can do is to acknowledge the history of the original landowners. Another thing is to point out to their philosophy and their connection to the land underneath them. Us, westerners may he the heroes of industrialization but we may as well have the most toxic culture to this planet

Happy Thanksgiving, America. What a great idea, to stop and consider reasons to be thankful.

Here in Australia, the popular paradigm of the history of our land is evolving to recognise native intelligence. As in North America, the Australian indigenous peoples managed the land with sophisticated methods that worked sustainably for millennia. Then 90% of the population perished from introduced diseases just a few hundred years ago.

The history that was written into school textbooks was one of a technologically sophisticated culture conquering a primitive culture. But with the shallowness of measuring superiority by guns, germs and steel exposed, history is being refactored.

The concept is to reconcile the history of Australia as a joint history that spans pre-colonial and post-colonial eras. There is much to be learned from the history of both eras.

Urgently, after last year's catastrophic bushfires, Australians are looking to traditional indigenous land management techniques for inspiration. By segmenting land into mosaic patterns of forest, grasses, pasture and animal habitat, indigenous Australians created a platform for managing the food supply with periodic controlled, localised burning of undergrowth and grassland. The regrowth attracted grazing mammals, which could be taken for food in a controlled environment. At the same time, these periodic burns worked prophylactically to obviate the conditions that lead to catastrophic wide scale fires.

Australia's national anthem currently includes the line "for we are young and free". Modern historians object to the word "young" because it discards tens of millennia of rich history that is a treasure trove of wisdom. A growing popular movement is calling for a revision of that line to "for we are one and free".

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