Before Columbus

excerpted from the book

American Holocaust

by David Stannard

Oxford University Press, 1992

Combined, North America and South America cover an area of 16,000,000 square miles, more than a quarter of the land surface of the globe. To its first human inhabitants, tens of thousands of years ago, this enormous domain they had discovered was literally a world unto itself: a world of miles-high mountains and vast fertile prairies, of desert shrublands and dense tropical rain forests, of frigid arctic tundra and hot murky swamps, of deep and fecund river valleys, of sparkling water lakes, of canopied woodlands, of savannahs and steppes-and thousands upon thousands of miles of magnificent ocean coast. There were places where it almost never rained, and places where it virtually never stopped; there were places where the temperature reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and places where it dropped to 80 degrees below zero. But in all these places, under all these conditions, eventually some native people made their homes.

By the time ancient Greece was falling under the control of Rome, in North America the Adena Culture already had been flourishing for a thousand years. As many as 500 Adena living sites have been uncovered by modern archaeologists. Centered in present-day Ohio, they radiate out as far as Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We will never know how many hundreds more such sites are buried beneath the modern cities and suburbs of the northeastern United States, but we do know that these early sedentary peoples lived in towns with houses that were circular in design and that ranged from single-family dwellings as small as twenty feet in diameter to multi-family units up to eighty feet across. These residences commonly were built in close proximity to large public enclosures of 300 feet and more in diameter that modern archaeologists have come to refer to as "sacred circles" because of their presumed use for religious ceremonial purposes. The buildings they constructed for the living, however, were minuscule compared with the receptacles they built for their dead: massive tombs, such as that at Grave Creek in West Virginia, that spread out hundreds of feet across and reached seven stories in height-and that were commonplace structures throughout Adena territory as early as 500 B.C..

In addition to the subsistence support of hunting and fishing, and gathering the natural fruit and vegetable bounty growing all around them, the ancient Adena people imported gourds and squash from Mexico and cultivated them along with early strains of maize, tubers, sunflowers, and other plant domesticates. Another import from the south-from South America-was tobacco, which they smoked through pipes in rituals of celebration and remembrance. From neighboring residents of the area that we now know as the Carolinas they imported sheets of mica, while from Lake Superior and beyond to the north they acquired copper, which they hammered and cut and worked into bracelets and rings and other bodily adornments.

Overlapping chronologically with the Adena was the Hopewell Culture that grew in time to cover an area stretching in one direction from the northern Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, in the other direction from Kansas to New York. The Hopewell people, who as a group were physiologically as well culturally distinguishable from the Adena, lived in permanent communities based on intensive horticulture, communities marked by enormous earthen monuments, similar to those of the Adena, that the citizenry built as religious shrines and to house the remains of their dead. Literally tens of thousands of these towering earthen mounds once covered the American landscape from the Great Plains to the eastern woodlands, many of them precise, geometrically shaped, massive structures of a thousand feet in diameter and several stories high; others-such as the famous quarter-mile long coiled snake at Serpent Mound, Ohio-were imaginatively designed symbolic temples.

No society that had not achieved a large population and an exceptionally high level of political and social refinement, as well as a sophisticated control of resources, could possibly have had the time or inclination or talent to design and construct such edifices. In addition, the Hopewell people had trade networks extending to Florida in one direction and Wyoming and North Dakota in the other, through which they acquired from different nations of indigenous peoples the copper, gold, silver, crystal, quartz, shell, bone, obsidian, pearl, and other raw materials that their artisans worked into elaborately embossed and decorative metal foil, carved jewelry, earrings, pendants, charms, breastplates, and other objets d'art, as well as axes, adzes, awls, and more. Indeed, so extensive were the Hopewell trading relationships with other societies throughout the continent that archaeologists have recovered from the centers of Hopewell culture in Ohio more materials originating from outside than from within the region.

To the west of the Hopewell there emerged in time the innumerable villages of the seemingly endless plains-large, usually permanent communities of substantial, multi-family homes and common buildings, the villages themselves often fortified with stockades and dry, surrounding moats. These were the progenitors of the people-the Mandan, the Cree, the Blood, the Blackfoot, the Crow, the Piegan, the Hidatsa, the Arikara, the Cheyenne, the Omaha, the Pawnee, the Arapaho, the Kansa, the Iowa, the Osage, the Kiowa, the Wichita, the Commanche, the Plains Cree, various separate nations of Sioux, and others, including the Ute and Shoshoni to the west-who became the classic nomads on horseback that often serve as the popular American model for all Indian societies. But even they did not resort to that pattern of life until they were driven to it by invading armies of displaced Europeans.



Arawak is the general, post-Columbian name given to various peoples who made a long, slow series of migrations from the coast of Venezuela to Trinidad, then across open ocean perhaps first to Tobago, then Grenada, and on up the chain of islands that constitute the Antilles-St. Vincent, Barbados, St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Anguilla, St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba-then finally off to the Bahamas, leaving behind at each stop populations that grew and flourished and evolved culturally in their own distinctive ways. To use a comparison once made by Irving Rouse, the people of these islands who came to be known as Arawaks are analogous to those, in another part of the world, who came to be known as English: "The present inhabitants of southern Great Britain call themselves 'English,' and recognize that their ethnic group, the English people, is the product of a series of migrations from the continent of Europe into the British Isles, beginning with various prehistoric peoples and continuing with the Celts, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans of protohistoric time."

Similarly, Arawak (sometimes "Taino," but that is a misnomer, as it properly applies only to a particular social and cultural group) is the name now given to the melange of peoples who, over the course of many centuries, carried out those migrations across the Caribbean, probably terminating with the Saladoid people sometime around two thousand years ago. By the time of their encounter with Columbus and his crews, the islands had come to be governed by chiefs or caciques (there were at least five paramount chiefdoms on Hispaniola alone, and others throughout the region) and the people lived in numerous densely populated villages both ,' inland and along all the coasts. The houses in most of these villages were similar to those described by the Spanish priest Bartolome de Las Casas:

The inhabitants of this island . . . and elsewhere built their houses of wood and thatch in the form of a bell. These were very high and roomy so that in each there might be ten or more households.... On the inside designs and symbols and patterns like paintings were fashioned by using wood and bark that had been dyed black along with other wood peeled so as to stay white, thus appearing as though made of some other attractive painted stuff. Others they adorned with very white stripped reeds that are a kind of thin and delicate cane. Of these they made graceful figures and designs that gave the interior of the houses the appearance of having been painted. On the outside the houses were covered with a fine and sweet-smelling grass.

These large buildings conventionally were arranged to face the great house that was inhabited by the local cacique, and all of them in turn faced an open field or court where dances and ball games and other festivities and ceremonies were held. In larger communities, several such fields were placed at strategic locations among the residential compounds.

The people of these climate-blessed islands supported themselves with a highly developed level of agriculture-especially on Cuba and Hispaniola, which are among the largest islands on earth; Cuba, after all, is larger than South Korea (which today contains more than 42,000,000 people) and Hispaniola is nearly twice the size of Switzerland. In the infrequent areas where agricultural engineering was necessary, the people of the Indies created irrigation systems that were equal in sophistication to those existing in sixteenth-century Spain. Their staple food was cassava bread, made from the manioc plant yuca, which they cultivated in great abundance. But also, through so many long generations in the same benign tropical environment, the Arawaks had devised an array of unique methods for more than satisfying their subsistence needs-such as the following technique which they used to catch green sea turtles weighing hundreds of pounds, large fish, and other marine life, including manatees:

Noting that the remora or suckerfish, Echeneis naucrates, attached itself to the body of a shark or other larger fish by means of a suction disc in its head, the Arawaks caught, fed, and tamed the remora, training it to tolerate a light cord fastened to its tail and gill frame. When a turtle was sighted the remora was released. Immediately it swam to the turtle, attaching its suction disc to the under side of the carapace. The canoe followed the turtle, the Arawak angler holding a firm line on the remora which, in turn, held tightly to its quarry until the turtle could be gaffed or tied to the canoe.

In addition to this technique, smaller fish were harvested by the use of plant derivatives that stupefied them, allowing the natives simply to scoop up large numbers as though gathering plants in a field. Water birds were taken by floating on the water's surface large calabashes which concealed swimmers who would seize individual birds, one at a time, without disturbing the larger flock. And large aquaculture ponds were created and walled in to maintain and actually cultivate enormous stocks of fish and turtles for human consumption. A single one of these numerous reed marine corrals held as many as 1000 large sea turtles. This yielded a quantity of meat equal to that of 100 head of cattle, and a supply that was rapidly replenished: a fertile female turtle would lay about 500 eggs each season. Still, the Arawaks were careful not to disturb the natural balance of these and other creatures; the evidence for this is that for millennia they sustained in perpetuity their long-term supply of such natural foodstuffs. It was only after the coming of the Spanish-and, in particular, their release of dogs and pigs that turned feral and ran wild-that the wildlife ecology of the islands found itself in serious trouble.

In sum, as Caribbean expert Carl Sauer once put it, "the tropical idyll of the accounts of Columbus and Peter Martyr was largely true" regarding the Arawak. "The people suffered no want. They took care of their plantings, were dextrous at fishing and were bold canoeists and swimmers. They designed attractive houses and kept them clean. They found aesthetic expression in woodworking. They had leisure to enjoy diversion in ball games, dances, and music. They lived in peace and amity."



AII that was to change, however, with shocking and deadly suddenness, once those first three Spanish ships bobbed into view on the rim of the Caribbean horizon. For it was then only a matter of months before there would begin the worst series of human disease disasters, combined with the most extensive and most violent programs of human eradication, this world has ever seen.

American Holocaust