History of Aboriginal America 2 – Myths of the Traveler

Posted on September 17, 2010

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Caravane_Marco_Polo

3. Travelers’ Tales

The Nuu-chah-nulth traditionally harvested dentalia shells off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.  Considering how deep the shells were to be found, the weight and unwieldiness of the tools with which they did the harvesting, and the fact of ocean swells continuously pushing them and their canoes off from the harvesting grounds, it was a difficult process.  The effort was made, however, because dentalia shells were prized wealth items, traded for thousands of years all the way to the Great Plains along well established trading routes.  There were many such trading routes criss-crossing North America prior to the era of European expansion, and there were people following the routes to trade, to travel, to make war, to make peace, to distribute news.

South-East Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, was formerly referred to as Indo-China, probably because of the obvious influences on its art and culture from the cultural behemoths of India to the west and China to the north.  Clearly it was the central point of a vast and ongoing sea trade than ran from India to China and back.  Historically, China traded as far away as East Africa by way of the sea.

China also had trade connections overland, by way of the Silk Road, set up and maintained by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and his inheritors, to connect China with the Arab and Persian civilizations of the Near East.  Marco Polo traveled this already well-used route to China where he (at least in his telling) became a great favourite of Kublai Khan, Chinese emperor and the grandson of Genghis.  Polo has gone on to continuing fame as the quintessential traveler, proof, in popular European discourse, and the Standard Model of history, of how Europeans unravelled the mystery of distant places and consequently brought success upon themselves.

The Standard Model makes much of the European love of adventure, a love egged on by European curiosity.  The implication is that other peoples did not possess these qualities, and therefore did not prosper.  Unfortunately, the notion, predicating that Europeans had qualities lacking in other people, is racist.  It is also clearly false.  There were trade routes everywhere, Africa, the Americas, Asia and elsewhere, established by non-Europeans.

A fact that we seldom hear is that Marco Polo was traveling a Mongol road well used by Chinese and Near Eastern traders.  Omitting this context makes his journey appear a rarer event in global terms than it actually was.

Now, his journey was epochal in the sense that it opened up the eyes of Europeans to what was out there in the world, (and that had some important long term consequences), but to a lot of non-Europeans of the time, the tales that Polo told (those that were true) were already old hat.  Some scholars have even accused Marco Polo of not making the journey at all, but simply cribbing his traveler’s tales from Moslem sources.[1] And in terms of epochal events, shouldn’t it be the Mongols who get the credit for opening up Europe’s eyes to China?  They built the road.  Marco Polo merely traveled it.  Okay, it was quite a journey, and Polo gets credit for writing the first Rough Guide to Cathay, 1266 edition, but it was the Mongols who made the journey possible.

4. Stumbling Upon a Continent

The first people to discover America were, of course, the people who were already in America when the Europeans arrived.  According to the latest evidence, the first wave of people – and there were several waves – arrived in what scientists called Beringia thirty thousand years ago or more.  Beringia is usually called “a land bridge”, but this can be misleading, suggesting that it was a strip of land which people crossed to get from one side to the other.  In fact, people lived there, just like people live in the Arabian Peninsula – which is never referred to as the “land bridge” to Africa.

The people who arrived in Beringia from Asia stayed there for a while, prevented from entering further into the Americas by the Laurentide ice sheet, which at its maximum extent 20 thousand years ago covered virtually all of what is now Canada, and extended as far south as what is now the northern United States.  During their long Beringian pause, which lasted 15 thousand years or more, the Beringians became genetically distinct from the others who remained behind in Asia.  It was these distinct people who first entered into and settled the rest of the Americas.

Beringia no longer exists as it did thirty thousand years ago.  A part of it is in Siberia, a part of it is in Alaska and the Yukon, and the central part of it is sunk beneath the Bering Sea.  Numerous parts of the global landscape, islands and the edges of continents, were sunk beneath the sea after the Laurentide and other continental ice sheets melted at the end of the last Ice Age.  Central Beringia was one of those parts.  But the melting of the ice took many thousand years, and long before the melting was complete and central Beringia was flooded, the Beringians began to leave their homeland and migrate down the northwest coast of North America in boats.  (They also migrated down the northeast coast of Asia, but that is another tale.)

The mainland of British Columbia was then still covered in glaciers, and for the Beringians, it must have been like travelling and living off the coast of Greenland.  But since so much seawater still remained trapped as ice, parts of the coast which are now under water were not then.  The Beringians fished and flourished along the outer coast, and opened a sea route to the rest of the Americas which many were to follow.  Thus, after the Yukon, which was part of Beringia, the outer coast of British Columbia is the place in Canada having the earliest human habitation – but you’d have to be a fish to visit our earliest seacoast villages.[2]

Within a relatively brief time after the Beringians broke the glacial barrier, they had sailed down the entire west coast of the Americas and begun peopling two continents.  And it was no accident.

Now the story outlined in the previous paragraphs isn’t the one most of us have been brought up on, nor even the one you will find in most anthropological texts in the library.  It is a reconstruction based on the most up-to-date scholarship available, including archaeological and genetic evidence.  But that doesn’t exclude the embarrassing possibility that much of the old scholarship, so called, was no more than the familiar Eurocentric cultural hubris compounded by fuzzy thinking.

The usual story of the peopling of North America has the earliest settlers stumbling blindly and inadvertently into North America, crossing the land bridge without realizing that they are in fact on a new continent (as if that mattered), wandering in search of game and finding themselves, by what amounts to sheer coincidence, in a new place hitherto unknown to humans.

All people travelled, everybody gets that now, since it’s been pointed out.   But – and here is the fallback position of Eurocentric reasoning – only Europeans knew where they were going.  Therefore only European travel counts as exploration.  Europeans are curious, so they find things out, we hear again.  Whatever other people find – since of course they are not rational and curious like modern people and/or Europeans – they must have stumbled upon by accident.  Chasing a deer or something.

5. Or Maybe They Floated There on a Log

Similar thinking has informed the debate about how the Australian continent was originally peopled.  As soon as scholars discovered that Australia has never been accessible by a land route, they began speculating about how, perhaps 60,000 years ago, the original Australians got there.  The first idea was that it had happened inadvertently- somebody accidentally drifted there clinging to a log, and, finding himself (or herself) unable to get back home, they set down roots and started out to people a continent.  The problem with this speculation is that it’s impossible:  where do the children come from?  Even if we presume a pregnant woman drifting ashore, and shake in a fair spicing of incest for a few generations, it still couldn’t happen.  No population is viable without a certain number of unrelated breeding pairs, Hebrew origin myths notwithstanding.

The Australian people got there by watercraft of some sort, bringing women and children with them, and they acted deliberately.  There was no accidental stumbling upon it, because no one invites wife, kids and uncle along for an accident.  The same is true with the settlement of the Americas.  The people boated down the coast conscious of exploring new ground and finding new places.

The Polynesians have had to face similar scholarly prejudices.  When Columbus set sail, he had to guide him the compass from China and the astrolabe from the Near East.  He had the trade winds to carry him to the Americas, and trade winds to carry him back.  The Polynesians, setting out much earlier with much simpler technologies and with much more difficult routes to follow, had only their knowledge of the stars and their sense of the sea, its winds and its currents to find their way on the Pacific.  Yet find their way they did, to virtually every Pacific Island, bringing women, children, pigs, chickens, and various kinds of crops with them.

Of course, the European scholars have attempted to make out that this was just random drifting.  Yet this doesn’t explain how the Polynesians were able to make return voyages, which they must have done because of the evidence of the sweet potato, among other things.  The cultivation of the sweet potato was universal among Polynesians, but when starting out to colonize the Pacific they didn’t have it.  That is because the sweet potato is an American cultivar, domesticated by the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas.  For the Polynesian people to possess it and to cultivate it everywhere, they must have visited the Americas and then brought it back to their various communities in the Pacific.  Again European scholars were reluctant to accept this idea, suggesting instead that birds brought the sweet potato to Polynesia.  However, the people refer to the sweet potato as kumar in Peru and Ecuador, and kumara, kumala and ‘uala in Polynesia, so the bird who brought it must have known how to talk.[3]

Of course denying that the Polynesians reached the Americas before Columbus is merely par for the course in Eurocentric historiography.  There is considerable evidence of trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic voyages prior to Columbus, but the evidence is always heavily disputed.

It is standard procedure to examine scholastic claims critically, of course, but any claims that seem to dispute the Standard Model of history get extra added attention.  That is why the idea of a sea route to the Americas was so heavily disputed until the evidence could no longer be denied.  That is why, along the same lines, the Monte Verde archaeological site in Chile – dated back to earlier than any accepted site in North America, and representing a more sophisticated hunting and gathering tradition than the Clovis culture which was supposed, in the long accepted archaeological view, to have colonized the Americas – was the subject of so much, often-irrational, dispute before finally being accepted.  That is why the finding of iron chisels in Makah territory in the Olympic peninsula in Washington State, buried under a mudslide that took place before Columbus, gets explained away as random oceanic drifting.

There was a lot of that, apparently.

Eurocentric scholars are simply reluctant to accept anything that seems to challenge the Columbian priority, despite evidence of trans-oceanic voyaging across both Atlantic and Pacific, and despite evidence, for instance, of ongoing cultural sharing such that some scholars have proposed a North Pacific Rim culture area encompassing both sides of the Pacific.  Raven steals the sun on both sides of the Pacific, as an example, and in both areas they use lip plugs – labrets – as decoration and to denote high status.  And, ranging beyond the north Pacific region, both the Maya and the Chinese place a rabbit in the moon.

Still, a question does remain:  How did the Europeans establish a two-way sea route to the Americas when other civilizations did not?  A good question, and the subject of the next unit.


[1] An extensive library of Arab and Persian travel literature existed for Marco Polo to crib, and that is my point.  Whether Marco made the journey or not is a question for other scholars.

[2] The stories of my people, the Tsimshian, who claim a age-long residence along the coast of British Columbia, include stories of a great flood, which I do not consider a coincidence.  Other peoples on the coast (and other coasts) have similar stories.

[3] Among the talking birds I know of, I suspect Daffy Duck, who could actually fly-not Donald Duck, for instance, who never flew, and, tellingly, wore a sailor suit.  The archeo-historical literature is vague on this point.

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Readings

The following links deal with Beringia and the early peopling of the Americas.

http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000829

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080213090524.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071025160653.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080320120714.htm

The following link deals with the sweet potato and the Polynesians:

Clues to Prehistoric Human Exploration Found in Sweet Potato Genome – Science Now

You may find a map of American Indian trade routes here:

http://www.usheritage.us/trade_routes.htm

Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2004, Three Rivers Press, NY.

  • Presenting modern scholarship concerning Genghis Khan, which considerably alters the tradition view of the former slave who created the world’s greatest empire.

If you wish to read up on the Polynesians, the following article has a bibliography of selected Polynesian ethnography:

http://www.kued.org/productions/polynesian/articles/vikings.html

The following link discusses the Monte Verde archaeological site in Chile:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080508143324.htm

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, 1995, Simon & Schuster, NY.

  • A useful resource all around, but cited here for its discussion of pre-Columbian contacts with the Americas.

Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada`s First Nations:  A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd Edition, 2002, Oxford University Press, Toronto.

  • A magisterial presentation of Canadian Aboriginal history, dense with information, but cited here for its discussion of pre-Columbian contacts with the Americas.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you, Daffy Duck, for providing comic relief.