A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

While researching last week’s post on “stupid things people do,” I came across a post on weird flute customs found in both Melanesia and a few little tribes in the Amazon rainforest: Gender Ideology Reflected in Flute Symbology of Various New Guinea and South American Cultures:

Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.

Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.

There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.

IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.

Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?

At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.

But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.

(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)

Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.

If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.

There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.

One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.

Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.

Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.

But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.

Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.

Russia is cold.

But potatoes grow really well in central and eastern Europe.

map of potato production

Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.

The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.

Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.


10 thoughts on “A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

  1. Horses actually originated in North America, but as fast runners able to subsist on steppe grass, they were crisscrossing the Bering land-bridge millions of years before humans. Until about 6,000 years ago humans saw horses only as food, but as their hunting abilities gradually improved, so too did Eurasian horses evolve to fear them.

    When humans, by then expert hunters, crossed the Bering, they swiftly cleared North America of most large animals, including horses. That was a serious mistake, for had they instead tamed the North American horse, they could have later invented chariots, stirrups, horse-collars, horse-carts, horse-drawn plows, etc. and not fallen so far behind their Eurasian brethren.

    (Horses survived hundreds of Ice Ages before humans arrived. Animals follow Sam Kinison’s advice and go where the food is, toward or away from the equator as needed. Climate change is a minor inconvenience for them, not a catastrophe.)

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  2. The idea that Russia is irrevelant to international politics is a very ENglish-centric view, in which “international politics” means “around England”. Russia was involved in northern wars; and of course, they fought with us, practically one war every decade or so (and of course WERE part of international European order, with envoys exchanged with European courts; heck, I’ve even read once that their invasion in 1634 was partially caused by English gold, to prevent Poland for getting involved in Germany).

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    • Damn my poor memory. I checked my library, and in Dariusz Kupisz book “Smoleńsk 1632-1634” (from the old edition; the old Bellona series had more cool covers that the new ones: https://static.tezeusz.pl/images/980/980831/2.jpg) he claims that it was France which wanted to push Muscovites to war with Poland; the idea was that Poland was important Habsburg ally. The envoy arrived in 1629 with official task of developing trade with France, while at the same time delicately suggest Russia to start a war; he also writes that at that time Muscovy was important source of grain for protestant countries. Most of the pushing however was made by French ally, Sweden, which offered help with training and hiring soldiers in the west (which proved problematic, only some 3500 mercenaries were finally hired by Russians), and later even proposed partition of Poland between Sweden and Russia. All in all, the goal was to secure Swedish campaign in Germany, to make Poland busy with its eastern borders.

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  3. On Russia. Cold steppes are ideal for keeping horses, as they, unlike cattle, can dig the snow out of the way with their hooves and eat. Enormous horse-riding empires grew up on the steppe. Why haven’t Russians kept huge herds of horses for eating and for exporting them for the purpose of eating instead of trying to farm?

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  4. You shouldn’t downplay like an after thought https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia.

    I remember in my undergraduate they were discussing that it was actually a urban hub and that by the time the Europeans arrived on the continent the urban center had long diffuse and so what The Europeans encountered was once a generally cohesive group with Cahokia at the center, That perhaps the fall of the civilization was what the Europeans in countered with all the Indigenous spread out all over the content. But that was about 20 years ago🙂

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