CHARLES C. MANN — 1491, NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS — 2005–2006–2011
That’s the book we had wanted to read for a very long time. It is absolutely needed in our attempt to understand what the Americas were before they became the Americas with Christopher Columbus sailing into them that he only thought were the West Indies, if not simply India per se. Our whole assessment of this New World before Columbus is based on what the conquistadors reported and what they wanted us to believe and it was altogether a big pack of many things that had nothing to do with what the Americas were before the arrival of the Europeans.
The Europeans brought along, meatal weapons and tools, horses and pigs, and several epidemics that were lethal, fatal, deadly for the Indians, as the author explains, because of the Indians’ particular genetic endowment concerning their immune system, their resistance, and reactivity to new germs. Not only had they never encountered smallpox, hepatitis A, and a few more, in their entire life on this earth and for many thousand years if not several ten thousand years, with apparently a genetic similarity with some native tribes from Siberia, but I will not take this as the answer to the mystery of this genetic handicap that became a deficiency, because the Indians did not react to a new germ by mobilizing their immune system and their natural defenses. They seemed to just close-down all access, lock up all doors, and in a way just let themselves be taken away by the various diseases. They may even have developed some kind of fatalism in front of this apparently inescapable and unavoidable cataclysm.
From the very first contact on the first day, the germs were transmitted — though of course, no one knew about it — and the high level of Indian mobility at the time caused the germs to be transmitted over vast areas in a question of days and when the diseases came out after incubation, it was too late. Within a few weeks or months, the infested population was put to rest in proportions that we cannot even know, except that all signals and signs we can find on the ground ‘archaeological or cultural) indicate that the New World was densely populated before and that Indians lived in big urbanized units that were comparable to European cities as for their population. Estimations of fatalities vary between 50 and 90%. I would say they must have been very comparable to the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century: 50% of the population was eradicated by the plague, but over longer periods of time, over ten or twenty years. With Indians, we are speaking of the same level of casualties but in just a couple of months in each case.
The author insists all along on the tremendous social, demographic, economic, political, and cultural catastrophe, a disaster for the whole continent. We cannot think that at first, the Europeans knew about this collateral effect after their arrival. But only at first, because very fast they seemed to have taken measures to compensate the collateral genocide that was thus unwillingly committed, and the Spaniards started importing Black slaves from Spain at first because they had had Black slaves in Spain for a few decades before Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic Ocean. And then they started importing them directly from Africa. The triangular Transatlantic slave trade was started. Then they must have known they were spreading diseases that existed in Europe, even if in Europe they were either limited to children with no real danger or to a small proportion of adults.
The main argument here is that what at the time people told about the Americas and the Indians was nothing but the description of a devastated country, continent, devastated by a pandemic tsunami. The testimonies the Conquistadors could get from the survivors were the stories of people traumatized by the event trying, at times desperately, to survive under the forceful if not brutal military colonial domination imposed by Spain and Portugal. At best they must have been nostalgic. But if we want to be realistic they were hyper-traumatized by the turn of events that “proved,” if it needed to be proved, that all they believed in before, gods, mythologies, religions, social contract, education, you name it you have it, was all wrong since their gods, among other spiritual forces, were given the absolute lie. How could they go on believing in the Maize God or the Sun God or whatever other God or Goddess, when it was so obvious all these gods just let them die in utter suffering and helplessness? After such an event, Post Traumatic Colonial Stress Syndrome, if not PT-Genocidal-SS, has to be the result. Could you believe what such traumatized people would say about what it was before the “Fall”? The author calls this the Holmberg’s Mistake, the belief that what they saw when arriving was the reality of before. They saw a highly sophisticated society in absolute disruption, and thus they could not see the high sophistication that was the Indians’ reality before this pandemic tsunami. So, they believed the New World was wild, savage, totally uncivilized, ^primeval for the “romantic” thinkers like Montaigne or later Chateaubriand. They believed the disruption they saw was the natural state of this continent.
Yet the author launches himself into a reconstruction of the past from what we can have at our disposal: archaeological finds and excavations, artifacts from before the colonization, all sorts of artifacts and objects, stories, mythologies that the memory of the survivors could provide. And then you have to enter into this book with care and slow reading because every word brings up a debate, every page requires a critical approach, every chapter is a mine of various minerals, all mixed-up and intertwined, obsidian, jade, and turquoise, or even gold and silver. The first thing you must do is sort out all the details and information and try to see things in an historical, what I call, with a few others, phylogenic perspective. I do not believe in retrospective reconstruction, and here it is difficult to ban that retrospective approach that is generally considered as narrowing the reality in my field of research, i.e. linguistics. So, we have to make do with it and try to compensate for the shortcoming of it with a good phylogenic approach that has to descend from the past to the present and not ascend from the present to the past. We have to wonder about what is potentially contained in what we have collected about the past, knowing that history will always only realize the potentials contained in the real situation, though of course, an event like Christopher Columbus can disrupt such potentials and their phylogeny. Yet I believe the potentials survive the catastrophe and it can come back into the picture several centuries later.
But one more fundamental idea is to be set here. What is often called the Clovis First Theory, a speculative ideological construction I would at best call the Clovis First hypothesis, is debunked scientifically in this book, even if it is not completely eliminated or reduced to what it is, a minor hypothesis concerning the arrival of Homo Sapiens in the Americas. The Clovis First hypothesis states that all Native Americans arrived in the Americas as a whole from Siberia via Beringia after the peak of the Ice Age around 15,000 BC at the very most (some versions of this speculative approach do not go beyond 12,000 BC or even less). Clovis is in New Mexico, and some say it had a very short lifespan: “They first appeared in America around 9,200 B.C. and vanished 500 years later, around 8,700 B.C.” (HowStuffWorks.com) Note the magical words “appeared” and “vanished,” as if it were some kind of prestidigitation act, from some supernatural power I guess. The doors that are still closed or only partly open are complex. First, some Homo Sapiens arrived long before the peak of the Ice Age (19,000 BC). At least three hypotheses about Homo Sapiens arriving in the Americas have to be taken into account. From Siberia, or lower south including Japan, but by “boat”, hence arriving on the Canadian or Washington coast, south of the ice caps, and then going down the coast both by “boat” or on foot. And that would have happened before 19,000 BC. The second hypothesis we have to keep in mind concerns Monte Verde in Chile that is being excavated and they have reached the layer around 20–25,000 BC. And there would be a third layer that would go beyond 30,000 BC. This brings up the idea that another migrating route must have existed in the southern Pacific. Apparently, DNA contacts have been traced with the Polynesians in the Marquesas Islands and other islands east of New Zealand. It is not clear when and if it is only from Chile to these islands or from these islands to Chile. Homo Sapiens reached Australia around 45,000 BC and New Zealand soon after though all archaeological artifacts about this old migration have been locked up by the New Zealand government for an unspecified length of time. These Australian Aborigines also reached Madagascar since the original native language is not African but is connected to the Australian Aborigines’ language. So, they knew how to navigate long-distance on the Pacific Ocean, and we know it is tricky as all Polynesians who do it will tell you, agreeing as for that with the writer and sailor Joseph Conrad. There might also have been some connection with Africa, which would explain some Olmec carved giant heads that are typical of African face physiology, but also the migration of some plants from Africa to Latin America, among others tobacco.
But the book insists, though maybe not clearly enough, on the existence of a split between a northern culture that imported maize and tobacco, for example, from the south (the case of Cahokia is fascinating), and southern culture centered on Amazonia as the devising area of the famous milpa agriculture and the terra preta soil, and the integration of ground charcoal in the soil, implying a “slash-and-char” agriculture and rejecting the slash-and-burn agriculture to after the importation of metal axes and tools that only came with the Spaniards after Christophe Columbus. He insists too that this shift to steel tools enabled the rescue of Indian agriculture, though not in the best direction, by slash-and-burn because metal exes and tools enabled Indians to clear vast forest areas they could not clear before. He maybe should insist more on the fact that the food needs had tremendously decreased after the epidemics and that this slash-and-burn agriculture was more needed by the incoming colonizers who imported African slaves to do the work the Indians could not do since they were dying like flies, and I am sure they were nothing but parasites for the colonizers, human (if not beastlike) parasites, cultural parasites, religious parasites, in one word barbaric heretics. On these questions, this book is essential, even if it does not systematize this critical approach to devise a new way to develop these Americas by integrating Indians and Indian traditions. The recent (July 10, 2020) US Supreme Court decision on the five tribes in Arizona whose basic treaties with the Federal government were signed at the end of the 19th century, reasserting the full validity of these treaties is going the right way, even if there is a lot more work to do. And we remember the justice decision at the beginning of Obama’s first term in office granting reparation money to all Indian reservations. The re-emergence of Indian culture and Indian tribes is coming in the USA, just as much as in many South American and Mesoamerican countries (Mexico and the Maya train, Bolivia and their Indian president Evo Morales, and the struggles of Indians in Amazonia, particularly Brazil.
You have understood I guess I consider this book as a turning point in the historical approach of the original reality of the Americas and American Indians. A turning point that reaches a point of no return: the question is not whether it is true or not. The question is how can we go further and understand what is emerging in this New World torn apart by the hegemonic role of the USA for centuries, a hegemonic role that is bursting at the seams of its suit due to the over-bloated (mentally and corporally) and over-fed (obese and probably diabetic) reality. Now I have given a general assessment, it is high time to consider some details, some specific elements, and there is a lot of food for thought there. That is the next task of all readers.
In this second movement, I am going to consider some questions and points brought up by Charles C. Mann’s book, knowing that there is a second book — 1493 — I will cover later.
The first point is on page 20:
“In every imaginable scenario, they [Native Americans or Indians] left Eurasia before the first whisper of the Neolithic Revolution… It began in the Middle East about eleven thousand years ago, in the western half of the Fertile Crescent, which arcs between Iraq and Israel, reaching into southern Turkey along the way. Foraging societies there grouped into permanent villages and learned to cultivate and breed the area’s wild wheat and barley. In the next few millennia, the wheel and the metal tool sprang up in the same area. The Sumerians put these inventions together, added writing, and in the third millennium B.C. created the first great civilization. Every European and Asian culture since, no matter how disparate in appearance, stands in Sumer’s shadow. Native Americans, who left Asia long before agriculture, missed out on the bounty.” (My emphases)
In this quotation, you have all the standard and biased western-centered if not Europe-centered (it could be specified as “Eurasia”-centered) theorization, which should always have remained a hypothesis and today we know it is wrong. The concept of Neolithic Revolution is a complete misnomer. We are speaking here about the emergence of agriculture and herding. It is a universal movement in the world after the Ice Age, three, four, or five thousand years after the peak of it (19,000 BC). It is in no way a punctual event but a long phylogenic process that occurred in at least half a dozen areas simultaneously, even if over a 5,000-year long period, at times in some areas slightly longer, and independently. Generally, it happened in areas where important rivers are flowing. The Tigris and the Euphrates in the Middle East, of course; but also the three rivers, the Yangtze (Jinsha), Lancang (Mekong) and Nujiang (Salween) rivers of Yunnan in Asia-China-South-East-Asia; the Indus and Ganga rivers in India-Pakistan-Bengal; the Nile in Egypt; the Amazon and other subsidiaries in Latin America; the Mississippi in Northern America; we could think of a few rivers in Black Africa, the Niger River or the Congo River for two; and strangely enough it was imported into Europe by the Indo-European migrations from the Middle East to the British Isles and Ireland, one along and around the Mediterranean Sea, and the other through the Caucasus and then into the vast European plains right through to Scandinavia and the British Isles and Ireland. Note these two migrations find a Turkic population that arrived in Europe around 45,000 BC and most of these people will shift to Indo-European languages, though in Finland and Lapland, in northern Russia, and in the Basque country, Turkic agglutinative languages survived these Indo-European migrations. Note Hungarian is the result of a later migration in historical time from Finland and Northern Russia of Turkic-speaking people.
When this is said we can see that his remark “All of Europe has 4 language families — Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Basque and Turkic — with the great majority of Europeans speaking an Indo-European language,” (page 186) is badly informed since Finno-Ugric languages, Basque and Turkic languages (note he must mean Turkish) are all Turkic agglutinative languages, and it means little since within the Indo-European family he does not see the great groups of Slavic languages, Germanic languages (including Scandinavian languages and English), Celtic languages and Romance languages (that includes Romanian of course). He should have thought twice when he stated page 186, “the extraordinary variety and fragmentation of Indian languages,” and then “Joseph H. Greenberg[‘s]… three main linguistic families: Aleut…; Na Dené…; and Amerind…” (page 187). In fact, as for languages, the book is extremely deficient. The author does not seem to have expertise or knowledge about the various languages of the Americas, nor about the writing systems of Latin American and Mesoamerican Indians.
Still on this point, to state that the Fertile Crescent is the original point of the Neolithic agricultural Revolution is simply absurd. It is not even sure it happened there first in time in the world. We know so little about other areas, even India and China. Domesticating wild plants takes a tremendous amount of human observation, experimentation, and conceptualization; Corn is a typical example since we do not know today how this hybridization (between what and what?) was devised and performed. One thing is sure the corn we cultivate today is not a natural product because even if punctually a mutation could have produced something close to it, it could not have reproduced itself and thus would have been lost. What’s more, the extremely diverse species that corn is (page 223: “red, blue, yellow, orange, black, pink, purple, creamy white, multicolored… cob’s the size of a baby’s hand…two-foot long cobs…”) must have required a lot of different hybridization to be produced in such a variety. So in fact Native Americans like all other human communities in the world that developed agriculture and herding did not miss any bounty from the Middle East because even in the Middle East they did the same thing as everywhere else: they devised and developed this agriculture and herding independently, by themselves. Herding is a typical case in the Americas, since after the Ice Age there existed no domesticable draught animals except the llama that could be used as a beast of burden and the roads in the Andes built by Native Americans were adapted to them since they cut up the steep slope into many steps that the llamas can easily climb whereas horses are just unable to do it.
Since we are on this point of beasts of burden and draught animals, the invention of the wheel, that did exist in Central America and Latin America, maybe in Northern America too, could not be used for carts of any sorts that cannot go up flights o stairs and that anyway cannot be drawn by any animal (note the case of Aleut Indians who can use sleighs drawn by dogs. Note too that Indians in the Great Plains of Northern America could not be easily migrating from one hunting field to another because they had no beast of burdens, no carts, and no draught animals. Horses will only be used on the Trail of Tears forced migration because horses had been running wild after the Spaniards first and then other European groups brought them into the Americas. This fundamental remark is only marginally alluded to by the author, though it has an essential impact on what life could be before the arrival of Europeans. He speaks of the Columbian Exchange. Horses are part of it. We will speak about it later.
The second remark that has to be done is about the agriculture Indians developed. In the book, some fundamental crops are absent or reduced to little. I used the Index of the book to see this extension or lack of extension since the index in a book gives a concentrated vision of the whole book’s content. Here are my results.
Beans: TWO mentions, one multiple-page mention
Cacao: ZERO mention
Cotton: FOUR mentions, two multiple-page mentions
Fish as fertilizer: TWO mentions, one multiple-page mention
Llama: ZERO mention [in the index, mind you, because he does mention this animal several times in the book.]
Maize: TWENTY-THREE mentions, 9 multiple-page mention
Manioc (cassava): ONE mention (ZERO mention)
Potatoes: ONE multiple-page mention
Salmon: ZERO mention
Spinach: ONE mention [Note it is a European invasive plant and we could overlook it]
Squashes: ONE multiple-page mention
Tobacco: THREE mentions.
This index is first of all not really representative because many items are not listed, or insufficiently listed. If you use this index to navigate in the book, you will not get a proper image of the matter contained in the book.
The most surprising under-listed crops are cacao (and today we know it is archaeologically proved to have been present in Bolivian Amazonia something like at least 5,000 Years ago, hence 3,000 years before it is archaeologically attested among the Mayas. This is essential. Culture does not move back in time but only forward in time, that means the Indians in Amazonia were a lot more precocious than the Indians in Mesoamerica and beyond the Indians in Northern America. We cannot deny in Northern America and Canada Indians arrived, one way or another, from Siberia, but we have to take into account that the demographic movement from South America to Mesoamerica, and eventually to South-west USA reveals a very old migration of Indians from the South to the North; The author gives the fact that in Latin America almost 100% Indians have type O blood, whereas in Northern America the percentage falls to 90%. (page 117) He uses this fact to speak of the homogeneity of Indian biochemistry, but in this case, we have to state the difference reveals some mixing situation in which two different populations meet and the difference implies the meeting of the two populations occurred in Northern America: two different Indian populations with two different biochemistries. It is obvious such a fact should lead to more DNA research to find out what the two populations are, but the pure one as for this criterion is the one from South America. This implies the demographic movement was from south to north; The author says that Amazonia was the main area where plants were domesticated and then that these domesticated plants moved North. Maize is in a way exceptional since it developed in Mesoamerica, as far as we know today. The whole book is very rich in how Amazonia was such a laboratory of domestication and genetic manipulation of plants. You have to add potatoes that are also so varied that you have species that can only grow in the mountain and at high altitudes, and others that can grow in plains and tropical climate. You also have a particular type, Oca (Oxalis tuberosa, formerly Oxalis crenata), that grow in a temperate climate and the tubers develop on the branches if these are covered up with soil. Colors are also very varied from red to black. This diversity shows how Indians were able to adapt their material and agronomical engineering to the particular circumstances available in different places, with different plants, climates, and soils. The author mentions it for Amazonia in Latin America and Cahokia in North America, but he does not systematize it with concrete examples of such genetic manipulations and how they were performed. Maybe there is nothing available in research, though I have seen a lot about cacao and maize. The only case he mentions a little is maize.
Two elements are clearly mentioned and explored. The rich engineering used by Indians to make some areas agriculturally productive. The first one concerns various areas like the Andes, Maya country, and Mesoamerica, as well as some areas, though later, in North America. It has to do with managing water with irrigation and drainage (which implies retaining water). To do that Indians built long canals to bring water and manage it in the fields. It also implies terracing the slopes of mountains and building some enclosed and clearing flat fields in the plains. In Amazonia, they have a long flooding season and they have to adapt their villages and their fields to this fact. Villages are higher than the flooding limits and the fields are also, for some of them, higher. In the Andes and with the Maya or even generally in Mesoamerica extended to the South West USA, irrigation and saving water are essential to be able to confront some drought periods, connected or not to Nino phenomena.
The second element is the work on the soil. In Amazonia, it is evaluated that 10% of the forest is man-made as for its soil. Indians did not practice slash-and-burn agriculture but slash-and-char agriculture, integrating charcoal in the soil and various bacteria (we do not know how they did it). They also used fish as fertilizer in these fields. They also invented what is called the “milpa,” a small cleared field in the forest, under the canopy of tall trees all around. These fields were permanent and modern measurements show that this soil called “terra preta do Indio” contains sixty-four times more charcoal than the surrounding red earth, and a hundred times more bacteria, some completely specific to this soil. Charcoal retains its carbon in the soil for up to fifty thousand years, and it is easy to date the soil thanks to this carbon. What’s more, “plots with charcoal alone grew little, but those treated with a combination of charcoal and fertilizer yielded as much as 880 percent more than plots with fertilizer alone.” (page 357) It is easy then to understand that the use of fish as fertilizer was a very good initiative. What is surprising in this book is that when confronted with such engineering procedures the author does not try to explore how these Indians, coming from we do not know where, with heritage and know-how we do not know at all, managed to devise such complex processes and agronomical genetics. To treat the soil to make it rich, to irrigate and drain it properly, and at the same time to genetically modify species to produce new plants and crops, all that required a tremendous level of intelligence founded on observation, experimentation, speculation, etc., and of course, education and communication to transmit the knowledge to younger generations and apparently to outside communities, at times very far away, who had not been able to devise such procedures.
My experience in the field of languages tells me that languages are modified by such exchanges of knowledge, know-how, technology. The Turkic population (that accounts for 75% of European DNA) adopted the new agricultural techniques brought by the Indo-European population (who represents only 25 % of European DNA) and they adopted their languages. Contrary cases can be explained, and it is the case with Basque or Finnish and Lap languages. That means the concept of “glottochronology” (page 43) that measures the time when two languages separated from their common ancestor, is not the real interesting question here. What kind of linguistic exchanges went along with these agricultural and social exchanges and that might bring us up to an explanation why only Maya developed a fully or at least vastly phonetic, though syllabic and not alphabetical, written language, though many other languages in Mesoamerica developed some varied levels of iconographic and rebus-like writing procedures, at times with some side elements of phoneticism. The field and scope of such research are absolutely enormous and can only be approached if we get out of the “Clovis Theory” that implies all movements were from North to South against all the phenomena we are dealing with here that moved from south to north.
This book is not real research but, in fact, it brings together the research of many people, without pushing this mosaic to what it should be, a confrontation to get to some real crossover-questions. On one hand, the book states that Amazonia was a real nursery for the domestication of all sorts of plants, though tobacco and cacao are absent, and maize is stated to be a special case attached to Mesoamerica. But at the very same time the books states page 234: “[according to Matthew W. Stirling] the Olmec have been known for two Homeric epithets: they were ‘mysterious,’ and they were the ‘mother culture’ of Mesoamerica.” This is a quotation but nowhere the author asks the questions that should be burning his tongue. The Olmec are archaeologically attested in a certain period and a certain form as if it were a stable and lasting culture, and this culture is supposed to have given birth to all the others in Mesoamerica. But it did not appear just like that, out of a prestidigitator’s hat, fully developed and sustainable as well as durable for centuries. We can easily see how other cultures developed from this one. But where did this culture come from? Where did these Olmec come from? What cultural, linguistic, and social phylogeny produced them? Did they descend from Amazonia? And then the same questions come up. Where did this Amazonian culture come from? Where did these Amazonian Indians come from? What cultural, linguistic, and social phylogeny produced them? The book sounds like the author would not want to ask the question about the origin of anything, because of the impossibility to answer to the typically American — at least for some generations — origin question, the question about the origin of the world and the origin of God. If you ask the question about the origin of the world and answer it was created by God, then the question about the origin of God comes up. What was God created by? Buddha in Theravada Buddhism and the Dhammapada is reported as saying that such a question is absurd since it will apply again and again to any answer to an origin-question you may ask. But that’s where I will differ strongly. Homo Sapiens has an origin because he descended from a previous Hominin, Homo Erectus or Homo Ergaster, and we know what made him Homo Sapiens, a long-distance fast bipedal runner. Homo Sapiens is the result of a set of mutations selected by the environment in which he lived at the time and that phylogenetically guided Homo Sapiens towards long-distance fast bipedal running, the only way he could survive in the savanna. By referring to a mother culture, a term borrowed from Stirling, the author locks himself in a “who-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” impossible dilemma.
And this frustrating experience can be met again and again.
For example, the three calendars of the Maya. The Haab secular 365-day solar calendar composed of 18 months of twenty days plus a nineteenth “group” of five days. Why 20 days, why 18 = 9 x 2 months, and why these extra five days? Then the Tzolk’in sacred 260-day calendar composed of thirteen “months” or “cycles” of twenty days. But why thirteen “months” of twenty days? What articulation does it find in nature? And this calendar is based on a rotation of thirteen months of twenty days, month after month, and each day is identified on this long series of 260 days by a cyclical number from one to thirteen that starts again as soon as this 13 is reached. This means that the 261st day will be the 1st day of the next Tzolk’in calendrical cycle and it is the same day as the first day of the initial Tzolk’in calendrical cycle. If it was 1-Ajaw, the first day of all the successive tzolk’in calendrical cycles will always be 1-Ajaw. It is even more difficult to understand the natural dimension or rooting of the fact that if we consider the case when the first day of a tzolk’in calendrical cycle is also the first day of a Haab calendar, the various cyclicities of these calendars will bring the same first day of a tzolk’in calendar being the first day of a Haab calendar after 18,980 days, meaning after 52 years of 365 days and if you consider the absence of leap years in this tradition, you try to understand how many groups of four years there are in 52 years and you find 13 groups, hence this 52-year cycle is 13 days shorter than 52 standard solar years with leap years. All that is purely mathematical. If you consider these two calendars, Haab and Tzolk’in, you come to this recurrence of 13. But what is the meaning of this number? Why was it so pregnant for the Maya that they made it central in their capture of time? No answer and not even a hypothesis in this book. That’s frustrating.
And it is not finished because the Long Count calendar used to date events in historical time is fundamental for the Maya since it states the “ground-zero-day” of Maya history, noted for them as 126.96.36.199.0. and it is very exactly August 11, 3114 BCE, the completion of the previous Long Count calendar cycle and the beginning of the current (meaning current before its end on December 21, 2012, the one that started on August 11, 3114 BCE) Long Count calendar cycle reached 188.8.131.52.0 again, and its end, hence the beginning of the next Long Count calendar cycle which is the current one today, during the winter solstice, on 21 December 2012.
What in nature supports this choice for the beginning of our modern baktun? No answer about such fascinating but (without any explanation) arbitrary choices. We know they cannot be arbitrary. So, what happened on these August 11 and 12, 3114 BCE? And let me be clear about one thing here: to come to such an extremely sophisticated and complicated calendrical vision, the Mayas, and probably many others, had to be mathematically and astronomically very brilliant. You can note too that a full cycle of 13 baktuns are stated as being completed when this modern world starts. It is thus not a creation of the world, but we find 13 again and no explanation though if we want to look for the origin of time, we have to go back 13 baktun to reach 0.0.0.0.0 which will be the creation of the world, or the creation of humanity, or the creation of time. Keep in mind one full cycle from Baktun 184.108.40.206.0 to Baktun 220.127.116.11.0 is 13 x 20 x 20 x 18 x 20 = 1,872,000 days. We can get to the same result from the table provided here: 2,456,283–584,283 = 1,872,000. This means that one baktun is 144,000 days long since one cycle is 13 baktuns and we are back to the value and meaning of this 13.
In the same way, the vigesimal counting system of the Maya is not unique in the world and has been used a lot here and there, like the twenty shillings of the old British pound sterling. We can easily see how you can get to such a mathematical base by counting with your fingers and toes. But where is 13 coming from? We can easily consider the solar year is behind the Haab calendar and its 365 days. But it is only the 360-day calendar that is used, thus getting behind the solar cycle 5 days per year for three years and six days the fourth year and starting again for three years and one fourth year. The very surprising element is the fact that the vigesimal system of the Maya is not entirely vigesimal since it is not 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 = 160,000. 18 in the second rank from the right (the Long Count is written from right to left as for logical hierarchical tiers, and in glyphic writing on stelae and carved inscriptions from bottom to top, most of the time, and it is even more complex if the inscription is in two columns as it should normally be) is a discrepancy imposed by the solar year but seen the Maya way, that is to say, 18 months of 20 days, a realistic calculation for dates. But what about plain counting, cacao beans for example used by the Maya as currency? I haven’t found the answer.
But the author is surprising too because he seems to ignore that the Maya had two words for “zero.”
First, the word and sign that means “nothing,” “empty” that we Westerners interpret as being zero, though to say the Maya invented it is tentative because the concept of “empty nothingness” is very old. The etymology of zero with this meaning is given as follows by the Online Etymological Dictionary that goes as far as Sanskrit, hence Indo-European and Indo-Aryan languages (India, Bengal, and Pakistan mostly) but does not go beyond to Chinese mathematics.
“figure which stands for naught in the Arabic notation,” also “the absence of all quantity considered as quantity,” circa 1600, from French “zéro” or directly from Italian “zero,” from Medieval Latin “zephirum,” from Arabic “sifr,” “cipher,” translation of Sanskrit “sunya-m,” “empty place, desert, naught.” [We should wonder if this concept was used in numeration or time measuring in Sanskrit, but if it exists in Sanskrit it probably appeared in the older Iranian language from which both Indo-European and Indo-Aryan languages diverged separately after the Ice Age, because Sanskrit is not the ancestor of Indo-European languages, only a cousin, but it is the ancestor of Indo-Aryan languages, and it has an older form known as Vedic Sanskrit. We do not know the route these people followed from Iran and the connection with the old “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” as it was called in Soviet times in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the Harappan civilization in Pakistan]
late 14th century., “arithmetical symbol for zero,” from Old French “cifre,” “naught, zero,” Medieval Latin “cifra,” which, with Spanish and Italian “cifra,” ultimately is from Arabic “sifr,” “zero,” literally “empty, nothing,” from “safara,” “to be empty;” a loan-translation of Sanskrit “sunya-s,” “empty.” Klein says Modern French “chiffre” is from Italian cifra. The word came to Europe with Arabic numerals. From “zero,” it came to mean “any numeral” (early 15th century), then (first in French and Italian) “secret way of writing; coded message” (a sense first attested in English in the 1520s), because early codes often substituted numbers for letters. The meaning “the key to a cipher or secret writing” is by 1885, short for cipher key (by 1835).
Once again we meet here something the Maya seem to have devised all by themselves in their isolated position in the Americas, but simultaneously and at a period that is not specified the Arabs would have derived the concept of a digit or figure “0” (“zero) to translate in numerals the concept of “emptiness,” “void,” and “desertic” that existed in Sanskrit and probably in the older source language from Iran.
Let us go back to the two “zero” word in Maya (basic information from John Montgomery’s Maya Dictionary available online at http://www.famsi.org/mayawriting/dictionary/montgomery/index.html.
mi/MI (mi) (T173) 1> phonetic sign 2> > noun “nothing, zero”; negative marker. Note the ternary structure of this glyph. Such ternary structures reinforced by the two separations that build a quintuple structure, and we must think of the Quincunx. There seems to be a connection with blood sacrifice, with bloodletting, with human sacrifice even.
b’i/B’I (b’i) (T585) 1> phonetic sign 2>noun “road” <> (John Montgomery) The “quincunx” glyph. (Peter Mathews) b’i/B’IH (b’i/b’ih) (Christophe Helmke) 1> b’i (b’i) b’i ~ syllabogram 2> b’i (b’i[h] ) b’ih ~ n. “road”, “path”. <> Represents a human footprint on the surface of the road, a Mesoamerican convention for denoting roads. But note this version of it:
and the “mi” glyph discussed here is only the left half of it, which makes this “mi” glyph a direct derivation from this representation of the Quincunx. But other glyphs can be used for this “mi” concept.
mi/MI (mi) (T217v) 1> phonetic sign 2> noun “nothing, zero”; negative marker.
mi/MI (mi) (T217v) 1> phonetic sign 2>noun “nothing, zero”; negative marker. These negative markers carry the symbol of “cut-off” commonly used in glyphs to mean just that about the hand or other body parts. Note the double bead in this symbol.
mi/MI (mi) (Tnn) > noun “nothing, zero”; negative marker <> (John Montgomery) Represents a human head with a hand over the lower jaw. This hand over lower jaw is the symbol of death and in fact of one particular form of human sacrifice: the ripping off of the lower jaw. That’s the end of speaking and eventually death. Michael D. Coe, in Reading the Maya Glyphs, gives the following glyphs for the same concept of nothingness and emptiness. This symbol means the completion of a vigesimal group that is promoted as one in the next higher tier, thus leaving nothing in the initial lower tier.
The third glyph is very common in the codices. Note clearly the standard numerical representation being bars for groups of five and dots for one has no direct representation of zero which is NOT a number in Maya, but the concept of completion of one hierarchical group triggering the passage of that group to the next higher rank as one. But this is vastly confirmed and amplified by the other “zero.”
Second the symbol for twenty which is the trigger of completion and thus of the passage to the next stage or level.
K’AL (k’al) (T683a) > noun “twenty;” cardinal number; the “moon” sign. Note the three concentric circles, the third one hashed. Note the three beads under these three circles on a hashed pocket that contains them. This heavy ternary structure has to be signifying. And to make sure this triggering value of twenty, let us consider this homonym glyph
K’AL (k’al) (T713a) 1> transitive verb “to bind, tie, wrap” 2> transitive verb “to close” 3> transitive verb “to set” 4> noun “completion” <> (John Montgomery) Represents the back of an extended human hand. And let us be clear about this hand which is also severed from the arm with the proper symbol on the back of it, but the hand is horizontal, and the fingers are slightly bent. A comparison with glyph T217v above shows that the negative value is not present here, at least the same way, hence the two beads in T217v inside the “cut-off” circle must carry this negative meaning. Here there is only one. But this leads us to an important remark about the Maya language. Glyphs are very often composite with either several glyphs merged together or concatenated, which is commonly explained in dictionaries, but also by the embedding of some abstract visual structure in glyphs, like the ternary structure I am speaking of here, concentric circles, beads, etc., or the “cut-off” sign, and many others, and this is not recognized or studied by all Mayanists.
This “k’al” is the basis of the word “k’atun” which is essential in the dating hierarchy: From left to right, from highest to lowest: “bak’tun”-“k’atun”-“tun”-“winal”-“k’in.” in arithmetic order: “k’in,” day — “winal”=20 days, month (in western conceptualization) — “tun”=18 “winal,” year (in western conceptualization) — “k’atun”=20 “tun,” no equivalent, though some suggest “score of years” (in western conceptualization, “a score of years” is not really used in modern English, except as survival of old vigesimal counting, though there are some active surviving vigesimal elements in some languages like French from France, but neither from Belgium nor Switzerland: “vingt,” “soixante-dix,” and subsequent numbers up to “quatre-vingt,” and “quatre-vingt-dix,” and up to “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf.”)
K’ATUN (k’atun) (T25.528.25:548) > noun period of twenty years of 360 days each; used in the Maya Long Count calendar; actual Classic Period name unknown <> (John Montgomery) Main sign represents the “TUN” sign (see below).
K’ATUN (k’atun) (T1034v) > noun period of twenty years of 360 days each; used in the Long Count; actual Classic Period name unknown <> (John Montgomery) Represents a bird. Note the two ternary elements: the three hashed patches on the skull and the three beads on the right side (ear?).
TUN (tun) (T548) > noun “year”; year of 360 days used in the Maya Long Count calendar and Distance Numbers <> (John Montgomery) Thought to represent a cylindrical wooden drum, or “tunkul,” in cross-section. Note “kul” is not specified in John Montgomery Maya Dictionary, nor the compound “tunkul.”
In fact, concerning this “zero,” Charles C. Mann makes the same mistake as Michael D. Coe. They consider 0 (zero) as a number and consider the twenty number from 0 to 19. This is a mistake even in western arithmetic, since the first ten-group is not from 0 to 9 but from 1 to 10. 0 is at best a digit and it is the triggering element in 10 that makes the decimal system jump from one lower level to the next, from the first ten (10) to the second level in this denary or decimal system that will be completed when reaching 20, and so on. It is the very “abacus” concept: when ten balls are reached on the lower level (that does not count more than ten balls, we push these ten balls back out and we add one ball on the next higher level. Or you can take it from the top to the bottom. Note the Maya write their Long Count dates from top to bottom in anti-hierarchical order.
That’s the invention of the Maya. It is not the Arabic zero that implies figures under zero, hence negative numbers, and it implies the decimal system that has ranks under the unit, meaning the unit itself can be divided into ten decimes, and each decime in ten centimes, and each centime in ten millimes, etc. The abacus can do that if there are two levels: an integer level and a decimal level, which is not clear on the first image above (Except if we take the lower blue-ball line as the first ten units of the abacus) but it can be clear on the second image above that clearly separates two levels. It is clear that the word “mi” is a concept that the Romans, for example, did not have in their numbering system, though they had the decimal triggering value of what stood for TEN for them: “X” but also for “D” (fifty), “C” (hundred) and “M” (thousand). So, we can say that “k’al” corresponds to the Roman “XX” (twenty). But, indeed, the Romans did not have a digit corresponding to “zero,” hence to Maya “mi.” Note the suggestion of “zephirum” I have given before, imported from Arabic, is not that simple because Latin had the concept of “nothing,” “emptiness” with the word “nihil” given as meaning “nil, nothing” by the Collins Dictionary. And this Latin root is pregnant in most Indo-European languages.
You see how frustrated you can get when you are confronted, even in books by celebrated experts, with such mistakes, or rather most of the time with such wording that is then understood wrongly in modern western conceptualization. The concept, word, and glyph “mi” is a tremendous step forward in human civilization, though it will be blocked in its potential spreading to the world for at least five centuries if not six, though in other parts of the world they came to the same concept from different points of origin, but we have to say it is not equivalent to the “al gebra” concept of the Arabs that René Descartes will recuperate in the 17th century to develop mathematical algebra. Some Mayanists easily forget the Maya were not living in the twenty-first century and had not gone through a full university cycle of graduate studies. They were great in their own ways, in some ways vastly over the people around them, but they could not be comparable to us, to our science, to our knowledge. They have to be respected and celebrated in what they were in their time, and not what we may dream they could be in our time.
It is the same frustration I find in this book when the author says they did not have the wheel, though they had it, but only as some kind of toy for kids, as the author himself says page 253. The author forgets a fundamental concept: any civilization can only solve problems that are actually present in front of them. The wheel implies roads and draught animals. The Incas had staircases up the mountain, devised to solve the problem of human beings climbing up steep slopes. Any way what animal could manage to draw a cart up such steep slopes if they were simple continuous road surfaces? None at all. Llamas can climb these stairs just as well as they could continuous road surfaces, like mountain goats, but no draught animals would be able to pull anything up such slopes, not to mention stairs. All over the world, they have devised roads that are winding up and down steep slopes for obvious reasons; That was not necessary for Andean civilizations. The Mayas on their side did not even have llamas. So only human beings could pull carts or push wheelbarrows. Try doing that on a slope that is more than 10%. It is well known many civilizations, and first of all Asian civilizations used baskets attached on each side of a human shoulder yoke to transport heavy loads, not anything looking like a wheelbarrow. When a civilization is confronted with a problem, it may at best experiment several solutions and chooses the one that is easier for them, though most of the time there is a logical phylogenetic solution that comes from what they already know or do. The shoulder yoke is a lot more basic than the wheel, because, as Marshall McLuhan would say, it is a plain extension of two buckets in the two hands, thus balanced to transport heavy loads in the hands at the end of the arms as easily as possible. The wheel is a lot more complex because it is not a direct metaphorical extension of the physical body.
For any long-distance transportation, the Maya used rivers and actually most Indians did in the Americas and they had developed canoes and kayaks that had little to be ashamed of when compared to the various boats and barks of Europe that were made of wood, heavy, clunky, and difficult to navigate. We always look at these older civilizations as if they were contemporary to us, and as if they were supposed to have developed the same things as we have. They did not because in their situations it was phylogenetically obvious that other solutions were handy and easy, and no comparative here because they were handy and easy in absolute terms for the Maya and other Native Americans. Human beings, humanity as a whole, at any time in their long history have always chosen the easier way to do something, to do anything, just one step more complex or different than what they were already doing.
We are thus coming to some concluding remarks.
The first one is that the opposition of Betty Meggers who is advocating a vision which is nothing but a green version of Holmberg’s Mistake, considering that the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans was a primeval absolutely wild and even savage, infinitely sparsely populated society more or less oscillating between on one side the “good pure savage” that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau will eventually celebrate, and on the other side cannibalism and the practice of the most barbaric violence and torturing in some kind of thanatotic cult of blood-shedding, heart-extracting, eviscerating, etc. Charles C. Mann compares some evaluation of how many people were publicly sacrificed in the Americas, in a revisited evaluation of the population as heavy and dense, and how many people were in the same way publicly executed along with all sorts of torturing (like the wheel, quartering, etc.) without speaking of the torturing taking place within questioning in some underground chambers dedicated to that type of human activity in Europe. Europe seems to be a lot more intensely productive in such numbers if everything is taken into account like burning witches, hanging-eviscerating-quartering-beheading so much loved in the Middle Ages, crucifying in Roman times, throwing to crocodiles in Egyptian pharaonic times, the famous wheel, garroting, impaling, and the list would never end.
This means Indian societies were at best feudal societies, at times pre-feudal societies and to speak of the absolute social satisfying of everyone’s needs in the Inca Empire as if it were some kind of communistic socialism is typically a conservative if not reactionary white-supremacist American vision of twentieth- and twenty-first-century “communism and socialism,” which means an absolute caricature. The Incas were not communists. At best we could speak of paternalistic social organization which is common today in some areas in this world and was common in the past. Think of kibbutzim, and the “African village” of Mandela’s saying, “It takes a village to educate a child.”
The second remark is that Indians were living in a very urbanized and collective environment, with urban concentrations and connections and exchanges among these urbanized communities. The book considers the Inka, the Maya, Amazonian Indians, and Cahokia in Northern America. A tremendous more could be said. The elements the author considers show that this Indian civilization moved north from Latin America in its expansion, which questions our a-priori belief (and that is really nothing but faith) that the only migration was from Siberia, via Beringia and Alaska and then south, and some still believe, down to the very southern tip of Latin America. Culturally it is false and the domesticated plants, that were domesticated in the Andes and Amazonia, as far as we know today, moved north and had to be acclimated to the various climatic and soil conditions there.
The third conclusion is about the Columbian exchange. Many plants and practices, like tobacco and smoking, were exported to Europe. In the same way, a lot of plants and animals were imported into the Americas from Europe: horses, rats, pigs, invasive endives, spinach, mint, artichokes, wild peaches, clover, bluegrass, etc. If you add to this the catastrophic consequences of the epidemics (including, by the way, the exportation of syphilis to Europe) in the Americas, the environmental and ecological balance of the continent was destroyed. The Indians had put under control species like passenger pigeons, buffalos, deer, elks, etc., plus plants and “wild forest.” The result of the epidemic tsunami was what is called “ecological release.” But the author makes a standard western mistake and tries to reduce the whole problem to a dualism he gets from ancient Greece,
“The ancient Greeks saw existence as a contest between nomos (rationality / order / artifice) and physis (irrationality / chaos / nature). In environmental terms, Thoreau, who saw the landscape as imbued with an essential wildness that could be heedlessly destroyed, embodies physis. Physis says, Let Nature be our guide; step out of the way of the environment, and it will know how to keep itself healthy. Nomos is the postmodern philosopher who argues that the entire landscape is constructed — that it has no essential, innate qualities, but is simply a reflection of chance and human action. Nomos says that no one ecological state is inherently preferable to any other, but that all of them are a product of human choices (even the ones with no people since we will have made the choice not to go there). (page 373–374)
I do believe that dualism kills, and in this case, it ends up on a rhetorical mention of post-modernism without understanding what post-modernism is. Certainly not the reduction of reality to two conflicting and antagonistic entities. That is Karl Marx’s mistake who reduced social contradictions to one between two entities, and he reached, naturally, the conclusion one of the two must dominate. So if the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) dominate today, then tomorrow in socialism and communism this bourgeoisie must be eliminated and the working class must become dominant, which implies the means of production have to be owned by either the workers themselves, or the state, or the working-class party. We got out of this binary dualism in 1945 after 50 million deaths in five years, 10 million a year. Post-modernism is the answer to this barbarity and the dualism that emerged with the Cold War, a dualism that is basic in the American culture where everything has to be reduced to two factions, actions, orientations, possibilities, good and evil, black and white, and when black is not covering everyone on this side of things, then you invent the dualism of colored and white, and not three ever (only the Christian God is a Trinity). For postmodernism, there is not ONE truth. There are only points of view. These points of view are multiple from realistic observation. And if we want to get to some wisdom, that some call nirvana, you have to bring together all these points of view and try to articulate them together, knowing you cannot eliminate any one of them.
That’s what we are supposed to know. Then when you have put all the facts and ideas we can find on our subject on the dissecting table, and Charles C. Mann is far from the exhaustion of all the potential knowledge on the subject, and anyone will always be far from such exhaustion, we have to take into account various dynamics that dictate human action, and particularly human needs as a good third element with physis and nomos: physical needs that have to be satisfied, social needs that have to be pacified, cultural needs that have to be nurtured and developed, mental needs that have to open us, our minds, onto the unknown, inside and outside our individual entities, our collective identities, our global identity in the universe. That means the “discovery of America was inescapable, unavoidable, could not be prevented. It was to happen one way or another and things being what they were, there would have been some “humanistic exchange,” a “frontal confrontation of differences,” and “total ecological release.” We can always say COVID-19 is nothing but a bit of flu, or a Chinese virus, or some Kung flu, or whatever you may find attractive in your own rhetoric, but no matter how the virus came out, from where and from what animal, as soon as it was out it was bound to gallop around the world. And we are in the situation of the Indians: no treatment, no vaccine, no immunity, and yet we are speaking of a total death rate for the total contaminated population that is only a few percentile points. But even one percent compared to one million infected people represent 10,000 deaths. We are far beyond one million, even though the fatality rate is more than one percent. In fact, as of the figures available on July 13, 2020 (see chart below: 572214 divided by 12430764 multiplied by 100 equals 4.60%) we have a 4.6% fatality rate which means 46,000 deaths per million of infected people. Look at the disruption this 4.6% fatality rate creates (particularly when it reaches 8 or 9% in some countries) and imagine the disruption caused in Indian societies that were confronted with fatality rates between 50 and 75% (and some even suggest 95%). That means between 500,000 and 750,000 deaths per million of contaminated people and the contamination was massive since no Indians were immune and could naturally develop any immunity.
You can imagine the impact of such figures on the ecological balance that existed before the arrival of the Europeans. I understand this realistic approach may shock some people. But it happened six centuries ago, and it could not be avoided, it could not be even foreseen. And we sure cannot repair the damage, though we can look for compensations that have to be wide-reaching and consensual. But can consensus exist after such a drastic event? Can Post Traumatic Genocide Stress Syndrome be alleviated, not to mention healed?
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
IVAN VAN SERTIMA — THEY CAME BEFORE COLUMBUS
“BLACK AFRICA’S HISTORY
This book was salvational in many ways at the time of its publication. It asserted the historical participation of Black Africa as far back as the birth of the Egyptian civilization. It insists on the leading role it played in some periods and it tries to find out in what periods there existed contact between Black Africa and the Americas. We cannot of course reproach the author with what he could not know in 1976. He could not know Gobekli Tepe, the surrounding settlements, the Natufian villages, etc., all going back to 12,000 years BC which is more than 6,000 or 7,000 years before the Egyptian civilization and 9,000 before the invention of the first known writing system in the Middle East, the Sumerian writing system too often identified as the Akkadian cuneiform writing system because the scribes were Akkadian speaking a Semitic language though the language was Sumerian, a synthetic-analytical language, probably post-agglutinative. Something like 100,000 years part in linguistic phylogeny.”
More Info: The book is old in the field it is considering. The last twenty years have completely transformed our vision of what happened in the world after the end of the Ice Age, or even after the small icy episode between 10,800 and 9,600 BC.
Archaeology, Egyptology, Anthropology, Tobacco, Maya Archaeology, Olmec archaeology, Maize, Christopher Columbus, Western Africa, America Before Columbus, Gobekli Tepe, Mali Empire, and Africans In America