Native Americans: More tech than the europeans?

Interesting little article.

LIKE EVERY AMERICAN schoolchild, I learned the story of the Pilgrims in school–how half of the Plymouth colonists died of starvation in the first winter, the remainder surviving only by squatting on an abandoned Indian village and ransacking Indian homes and graves for caches of food. But it was only as an adult, visiting the splendid reconstruction of the colony in Plymouth, that it occurred to me to wonder why the local Wampanoag Indians had let them stay.

The Wampanoag confederation, which occupied coastal Massachusetts, was bigger and more numerous than the Plymouth colony, and jealous of its territory. Why would it let these foreigners, whom the Indians must have regarded as thieves and interlopers, occupy a valuable piece of coastal real estate? For that matter, why did Indians permit any of the first European colonies–all of which were poor, fractious, and ill-prepared–in North America?

When I asked one of the authentically costumed, '‘living history" workers at the reconstructed village why the Indians hadn’t driven away the Pilgrims, she told me that the Wampanoag wanted European goods, especially metal items like cook pots, hatchets, and guns. Her explanation precisely reflected the Pilgrims’ view. After the Wampanoag signed an alliance with the colony, Edward Winslow, a future Plymouth governor, wrote that the Indians were lured by superior European technology–especially European guns, ''for our peeces [guns] are terrible unto them."

In my American history classes such stories recurred time and time again. Although European colonies were feeble at the outset, the teachers explained, they eventually triumphed over the natives because of their better technology. This explanation is still common today. ''The fires of modernization and industrialization…never took light over most of the non-European world," explains historian Eric L. Jones in ''The European Miracle," a widely cited text. ''Europe was a mutant civilization in its uninterrupted amassing of knowledge about technology." Native Americans, poor laggards, didn’t have a chance.

Contemporary research suggests, though, that this picture is too simple. Indeed, the conventional view of Indians’ technological backwardness says less about the relative sophistication of the two societies than our own abiding misconceptions about the nature of technology. As the University of Texas historian Alfred W. Crosby has noted, in Columbus’s day Europe ''had a greater proportion of individuals who understood wheels, levers, and gears than any other society on earth." Perhaps naturally, European elites ranked other societies by the number and complexity of their mechanical devices, a practice still commonly followed by their descendants. Living in the bubble of our own computers and automobiles, we tend to think of technology in terms of electricity, plastic and metal, motors and wheels.

Pedro Pizarro, Francisco’s nephew and page, survived enough bloody battles with the Inca to be under no illusions about indigenous technology. In his memoirs, he attributed the Spanish victory not to overwhelming European technology but to overwhelming European diseases. A few years before Pizarro arrived, smallpox–introduced from Europe via Mexico–swept the Inca realm, killing the emperor, his chosen heir, much of the court and the military leadership, and as many as one out of three inhabitants of the empire. The vacancy at the top led to a ruinous, multi-year civil war that killed thousands more. ‘’[Had the emperor] been alive when we Spaniards entered this land," Pedro remarked, ''it would have been impossible for us to win it… And likewise, had the land not been divided by the [smallpox-induced civil] wars, we would not have been able to enter or win the land." Germs, not guns or steel, conquered the Inca.

The same held true in the Northeast–the region wasn’t conquered so much as infected. By the time of the Pilgrims, Europeans had been visiting New England for a century. Thickly populated and heavily armed, Indian villages had welcomed the trade but fended off permanent settlement. In 1616 a French ship wrecked off Cape Cod. Indians captured the few survivors and distributed them into different villages. At least one sailor had a disease, perhaps viral hepatitis, which he bequeathed to his captors. The results were devastating. Indians ''died on heapes, as they lay in their houses," the English trader Thomas Morton wrote. Death rates in coastal New England reached 95 percent. Among the victims were the great majority of Wampanoag.

Although statements like Morton’s are scattered throughout colonial accounts, most historians did not take note of them until 30 years ago, and they still have not percolated into high-school lesson plans. Part of the reason for the holdup, no doubt, is due to the disciplinary boundaries that long kept historians of politics and historians of science apart. But another part, one assumes, is simple ethnocentrism, an intellectual vice in every society. Europeans and their descendants have long assumed that cultures were behind the intellectual eight ball if they didn’t do things Europeans were good at. But this view may only be the luxury of those whose triumphs were ensured by microorganisms that they neither understood nor controlled.

Well. For discussion: does this change the moral content of stealing the land or not?

Survival of the fitest. It was either European germs that killed the Incans or Incan germs killing the Europeans.

None of this really seems different to me… I was always taught that disease played a big factor in the conquest of the Americas, but yes, the Europeans had better fightin’ tech. Which that article doesn’t seem to refute, btw… yeah, Native American bows were better, but guns were psychologically fearsome, and cannons were that too, as well as being quite effective. And… moccassins? Don’t get me wrong, they’re comfortable and all, but I just don’t see them being anybody’s secret weapon. At least not against anything that isn’t paved with stones.

Is this really new info? I thought it was commonly understood that Native Americans had been displaced because the Europeans showed up with diseases, alcohol, and guns.

Sure, but it’s news to me that it’s “almost all disease.” Definitely chops down the survival of the smartest angle.

But the Europeans didn’t actually try to decimate the American natives at first, except for the Spanish conquistadores. With the weapons at the time their advantage in combat-related technology probably wasn’t very big – a large part of superior European technology was not immediately useful for fighting local tribes. You can’t throw a 76-gun frigate or a cathedral at a tipi, after all, and the superior infrastructure of European nations was unavailable to those loose bands of settlers. Technological advantage worked very well for the organized British army in Asia, though…

European advantages stemmed almost entirely from the toll disease took. Estimates are that over 90% of the entire population died, including civil leadership. Cultures were destroyed with the grandchildren of the pre European contact culture in one case I read of believing the ruins of their grandparents’ cities were built by giants.

Technological advantages weren’t as extreme, especially as Native Americans started adopting Horses and Guns. Certainly not enough alone for a few hundred Spanish to conquer millions and millions of Incas.

The other thing that really screwed the Native Americans is that they had new clue how to handle “Great Game” diplomacy, no doubt in large part because their culture was devestated. Witness how easy it was for the United States to play the various indian states off against each other, despite breaking pretty much all it’s treaties.

Track down “Guns, Germs, and Steel” if you interested for more details about this, and discussion of why it worked out like it did (e.g. why didn’t American Germs conquer the Old World?)

Weren’t the Incans wiped out by the Spanish years before the European’s landed? They would came in contact with tribes such as the Iroquois or the Nipmuc. My American history blows.

The Anglophones in Ontario would have came in contact with the Hurons or the Iroquois.

The south american conquest is a slightly different kettle of fish to the events in North America as far as I know and my knowledge of the North American history is pretty sparse but I was under the impression that the original “pilgrims” were woefully unprepared to colonise an ‘empty’ country and relied on initial trade and friendship with the indiginous population just to survive.

The Spanish landed upon the shores of Meso-America in February of the year 1519, in the area of Vera Cruz. By November of that year, the Spanish fleet, commanded by Hernando Cortez, entered into Tenochtitlan and simply arrested the Emperor of the Aztec, Montezuma. Within the time span of two years, Cortez dismantled the Aztec monarchy and gained control of all of Tenochtitlan, and many of it’s surrounding territories.

Why was the Aztec Empire taken so quickly by the Europeans led by Cortez? There are many factors to consider in answering such a question. Of the most important is the time in which Cortez entered into Tenochtitlan. Prior to his arrival, the Aztec had seen many astrological phenomena which seemed to portend the collapse of the empire itself. These portents of doom ranged from a comet seen in the day time, to the destruction of two temples. In addition to these omens of doom, Cortez arrived at harvest time, when the Aztec were generally not prepared for war, although there were battles. Also, the Tlaxcalans helped Cortez fight the Aztecs. Also, the Aztecs believed that the god Quetzalcoatl was going to return and destroy the Aztec empire. Quetzalcoatl was seen as a man with light hair, and light colored skin, and it was thought by the Aztec, that Cortez was the returning Quetzalcoatl. Outbreaks of epidemics also helped to weaken the Aztecs. As a result of all of these factors, the Aztec were ripe for an invasion, and Cortez succeeded in decimating the once great Aztec empire.

In 1572, Francisco Pizarro entered into Peru, where, with his small band of 175 men armed with an ineffective cannon, took over the entire Incan Empire.

Quickly after Pizarro landed on the shores of Thubes, on May 13, 1532, he began to advance toward the Empire’s capitol. As Pizarro’s group advanced, they were confronted by roughly fifty-thousand Incan warriors within the town square of the capitol city, Cajamarca, who were bent on destroying Pizarro’s band. However, the Inca did not attack, rather, Pizarro asked the Inca’s leader, Atahualpa, to meet with him and his body guards unarmed, and both the Inca and Pizarro’s men stood at a standstill. Accepting Pizarro’s offer was the Inca’s worst mistake. Pizarro knew that if he had the Emperor he would have the entire Incan Empire, and all the gold which it held (Pizarro had originally set off from Spain for the city of gold). Shortly after meeting with Pizarro, Atahualpa’s gold headband was torn form his head, and with the blast of a cannon, Pizarro’s men slaughtered all of the Inca’s within the square of Cajamarca. Atahualpa attempted to bargain with Pizarro for his life, offering him a room filled with gold (roughly 17 feet by 22 feet by 9 feet), but shortly after Atahualpa showed Pizarro the room he was murdered

During the late 16th century, 200,000 Spaniards immigrated into South America. Quickly the landscape of South America began to change, with imported plants, large sugar plantations, vast estates, and imported animals over-taking the native landscape. Bureaucracy and government also took hold quickly in South America. The Spanish established the encomiendas, where the government granted conquerors the right to employ groups of Indians. The encomiendas, in truth were a form of legalized slavery. Relegated to practical slave labor within sugar cane plantations and mining caves, the native population of Peru declined from 1.3 million in 1570, to 600,000 in 1620. In Meso-America the circumstances were no different. The population of Indians went from 25.3 million in 1519, to a scant 1 million in 1605. Though forced labor played the largest part in the decimation of the Incan and Aztec, disease is by no means minor within this time frame. Widespread epidemics of small pox and other diseases were not uncommon, and claimed the lives of millions. On the psychological front, historians and psychologists have offered another reason for the decimation of the Incan and Aztec populations, namely the Indians had lost the will to survive. With the extreme and quick loss of culture, accompanied by the pressure of Christian missionaries and laws preventing the practice of any form of native religion (if they did there were strong repercussions even death), the Indians were, by all means, slaves to the Spaniard immigrants.

Military discipline played a significant role as well, at least in Virginia and New England. The fact that the English fought with soldiers trained in the methods and tactics of European warfare more than compensated for the relative weaknesses of muskets as weapons.

The headline to this topic “Native Americans : More tech than the europeans?”, while posed as a question, implies that the answer is yes. In fact, it’s decisively no by any reasonable interpertration.

While the natives had some tech that the Euros didn’t, they were missing all kinds of Euro tech, including the wheel, large, rigged ships, large land transportation systems, gunpowder based weapons of war, and many others. The Euros had, by ~1500, assimilated most of the tech from 3 large continents (Europe, Asia, Africa), whereas the natives largely only had the tech from their own specific continent (either North or South America, with very little communication between them). The lack of distant trading mechanisms (i.e. large ships, and easily navigable waterways equivalent to the Mediterranean), further limited the natives.

On the other hand, the fact that the rapid Native American decline/defeat/conquest was primarily attributable to disease is pretty much unquestionable, and has been widely acknowledged for as long as I remember. For that matter, in my dim recollection of my history schoolbooks a couple decades ago, the schoolbooks also reported this correctly (though the images of Davy Crockett shooting it out with the injuns perhaps make more of an impression on your average 8-10 year old boy’s mind). For the same reasons that the Euros pooled their tech among three continents, they also pooled their germs, and, their immuno-resistances.

Read Guns Germs and Steel, an excellent history and explanation of all of this stuff - both the disease side and the technology side.

The thread question is deceiving, since the article doesn’t suggest that the American Indian had more tech than Europeans, only that their level of technology has been underappreciated. The article title cites ingenuity, not primacy. To say that Native weapons and clothing are underappreciated is not at all the same as saying that they were better, because in many circumstances they clearly weren’t.

But you can’t just compare 16th century muskets to bow and arrows since the conquistadors also had crossbows, steel weapons and horses. The article makes other fallacious comparisons by matching an expert native bowman to a panicky European marksman and durable native footwear designed for the wilderness to stiff European boots designed for the city.

Besides, you just have to look at the Inca walls - almost perfectly joined stones with no mortar and no wheels - to see that there was no shortage of ingenuity in the New World.

Every text that I know cites disease as the single greatest factor in the eradication of the native population.


Read the book. There are a number of reasons why the europeans had diseases and the americans did not. The Europeans had the ‘technology’ to create greater population densities. Now you can go back further ( as the book does ) as to why the people of Europe had this ability to have greater population densities.

The one thing that Gun, Germs, and Steel fails at, IMO, is explaining the China problem. That is if you look at the world in 1200 AD it’s pretty clear that China is going to rule the world. However by the 20th century it had not worked out that way. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations does a decent job of explaining that one.

I always figured China’s inability to expand was i thought due to its beaurocracy and logistical handicaps, as well as a strong asian cultural bias against coexisting with foreign populations without forcing or expecting them to assimilate.

Anyway what the New World nations lacked was knowledge; both practical and philosophical. They were still stone age cultures imbued with fetishistic symbolisms and completely devoid of any kind of systematic approach to understanding their world.

Take Pizarro and Cortez, give them cart fulls of gold, and tell them to lead the Aztecs and Incas in battle against the Europeans, and today there would not be a drop of Old World blood in the new. Think of all the easy ways you could militarily overwhelm a nacent European invader with the peoples and empires of the New World - you just have certain kinds of knowledge to do so.

Hm. While we’re plugging Root Causes books, I’ll also mention Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson has, unfortunately, because a celebrity of the neo-conservative movement since the book’s publication, and these days he spends less time writing history and more time writing paeans in praise of Western power.

I’ll be the first to admit that Carnage and Culture isn’t as well-written as Gun, Germs and Steel or The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. But Hanson effectively highlights the military reasons for Western dominance that the other books miss, and I think you’d be missing something if you didn’t read his book as well.

I made the title as exaggerated as possible, as always. :)

I’ve read guns, germs, and steel, but I didn’t remember “90% of the damage was disease” in there. I’ve read The Wealth & Poverty of Nations and I still have no idea what his thesis was, other than racist/cultural pseudoscience. You see, Europeans just worked harder! or some nonsense.

Maybe this is only a surprise to me with the awful high school education I got in rural North Texas…

Chapter 11 - “The Lethal Gift of Livestock”. Some very intriguing numbers in there.

“By 1618, Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million.”

“The Indian population of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million…in AD 1492 to zero by 1535.”

So in some areas it was much higher than 90 per cent. Note that the Inca ruler and his designated heir were apparently both killed by European diseases before Pizarro even showed up, setting the stage for the civil war that made his job so much easier.


Guns, Germs, and Steel really overstates its case. The thesis itself isn’t that new, and he overapplies it. By the logic of the book, Egypt and China would have been both among the first to develop civilization (correct, of course) and then gone on to rule everything (obviously false). While work animals, productive staples, and disease resistence may well be necessary prerequisites for advanced culture, they are insufficient to maintain it. Just ask any of the various nations crushed by numerous but technologically inferior barbarians.

I would not say that. His book ranges all over the place but I would probably say that the central point of the book is that constant conflict and competition in europe spurred innovation and that resulted in ( perhaps by luck, who knows ) a few key inventions ( including some things that others may not consider technology eg: Magna Carta I can not remember if he covers the Magna Carta ) being discovered in the west. he contrasts that with the East where the amazing success of the Chinese and other eastern cultures in creating very stable non-competing countries worked against them ( for China this could have been caused by their Hydro infrastructure al la Egypt, but I do not know enough about their history to know if this theory holds water … ahem ) . He clearly documents which inventions were important, which is valuable in of itself, and he tries to give some causes.

He does not say anything about genetics although he is willing to say that culture is a technology of sorts and it can give advantages ( he credits the Islam for instance ).

However if the only explination that you are willing to admit is geography well then you are out of luck since he does not cover it, or rather brushes it aside.

I think that both the the wealth and poverty of nations and guns germs and steel can rest comfortably next to each other and even complement each other. We are not talking about the Bell Curve here, that book clearly runs counter to the thesis of guns germs and steel.

No Jesus reference, Huzurdaddi? Are you feeling ok?