Saturday, October 13, 2007

C.U. Instructor Ben Whitmer Mischaracterizes Charles C. Mann's Research

“No consensus has emerged, but a growing number of researchers believe that the New World was occupied by a single small group that crossed the Bering Strait, got stuck on the Alaska side, and straggled to the rest of the Americas in two or three separate groups, with the ancestors of most modern Indians making up the second group”---Charles C. Man in 1491 (p. 16-17).

Ben Whitmer, an instructor at the University of Colorado, is mischaracterizing the research of Charles C. Mann, the Author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I have written previously about this book here.

Mr. Whitmer writes:

"I finished 1491 not too long ago. Not a great book, but what it does well is to lay out, in a broad and very shallow fashion, the many arguments that’ve been punching massive holes in most everything those in the scientific and historical communities have thought they’ve known about Indians for the last several centuries.

The idea of an unpopulated, or underpopulated continent, gone. Hunter/gatherers barely eking out a living, gone. Primitive peoples with no concept of agriculture, gone. The entire concept of “virgin” forest, or an unmodified continent containing naught by vast wilderness, gone. The Bering Strait land bridge theory, way, way, fucking gone.

Not that all of this hasn’t been covered at great length for the last thirty years, of course.

You can find it all in the works of, say, Vine Deloria and Ward Churchill."

Mr. Whitmer is attempting to "piggyback" on Charles C. Mann's excellent book. He is attempting to coopt 1491 for the Churchill cause: One notes that this is exactly what Churchill did when he "cited" the Stearns to support his claim that the American Army deliberately infected the Mandan with smallpox.

Mr. Whitmer incorrectly states that the book contends that the Bering Strait land bridge theory is “way, way, fucking gone.” Mann doesn’t say that at all! Mann actually says:

“No consensus has emerged, but a growing number of researchers believe that the New World was occupied by a single small group that crossed the Bering Strait, got stuck on the Alaska side, and straggled to the rest of the Americas in two or three separate groups, with the ancestors of most modern Indians making up the second group. Researchers differ on the details; some scientists have theorized that the Americas may have been hit with as many as five waves of settlement before Columbus, with the earliest occurring as much as fifty thousand years ago. In most versions, though, today's Indians are seen as relative latecomers.”

Indian activists dislike this line of reasoning. "I can't tell you how many white people have told me that 'science' shows that Indians were just a bunch of interlopers," Vine Deloria Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said to me. DeLoria is the author of many books, including Red Earth White Lies, a critique of mainstream of archaeology. The book's general tenor is signaled by its index; under "science," the entries include "corruption and fraud and," "Indian explanations ignored by," and "lack of proof for theories of," "myth of objectivity of," and "racism of." In Deloria's opinion, archaeology is mainly about easing white guilt. Determining that Indians superseded other people fits neatly into this plan. "If we're only thieves who stole our land from someone else," Deloria said, "then they can say, 'Well, we're just the same. We're all immigrants here, aren't we?"

The moral logic of the we're-all-immigrants argument that Deloria cites is difficult to parse; it seems to be claiming that two wrongs make a right. Moreover, there's no evidence that the first "wrong" was a wrong---nothing is known about the contacts among the various waves of paleo-Indian migration. But in any case whether most of today's Native Americans actually arrived first or second is irrelevant to an assessment of their cultural achievements. In every imaginable scenario, they left Eurasia before the first whisper of the Neolithic Revolution.

The Neolithic Revolution is the invention of farming...Native Americans, who left Asia long before agriculture, missed out on the bounty, "They had to do everything on their own," [A.W.] Crosby said to me. Remarkably, they succeeded (16-17).

There are just a number of different theories joining this old theory about the Indians arriving by crossing the Bering strait, which is being refined by new evidence. Some information is on pages 16-17, including the mildly dismissive comments about Vine DeLoria's perspective (above). Ward Churchill is dismissed on page 131, and two specimens of Churchill's mocking style can be found on pages 131 and 362.

There is a map on page 159 that shows that paleo-Indians may have arrived through an ice-free corridor route as well as along a costal route. On page 17 Mann writes that Indians may have arrived earlier, that they may have travelled by boat, or that they may have arrived via Australia. These are presented as scientific theories, not established facts.

Mann says that “Indians’ closest genetic relatives are indigenous Siberians” (105). Mann says the ancestors of the Indians “left Eurasia” (17) and that “at the time of Columbus’ arrival the great majority of Indians were South of the Rio Grande” (15).

I think 1491 is a very interesting book that presents the evolving scientific theories about how the ancestors of the Indians arrived in the Americas and the cultures they developed, but the author doesn't feature Ward Churchill an expert on pre-Columbian America.

My first post on this subject has two links to an interesting article by Mann that originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of the Atlantic.

Mann quotes Ward Churchill twice:

"Did they [Europeans] recoil in horror and say, "Wait a minute, we've got to halt the process, or at least slow it down until we get a handle on how to prevent these effects" [the spread of European diseases]? Nope. Their response pretty much across-the-board was to accelerate their rate of arrival, and to spread out as much as was humanly possible" (131).

Mann comments about Churchill's remarks:

"[T]his...overstates the case. Neither European nor Indian had a secular understanding of disease. "Sickness was the physical manifestation of the will of God," Robert Crease, a philosopher of science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, told me. "You could pass it on to someone, but doing that was like passing on evil, or bad luck, or a bad spirit---the transmission also reflected God's will..." (131)

"The Mexica agreed. In all the indigenous accounts of the conquest and its aftermath, the anthropologist J.
Jorge Klor de Alva observed, the Mexica lament their losses, but, 'the Spaniards are rarely judged in moral terms, and Cortez is only sporadically considered a villain. It seems to be commonly understood...that the Spaniards did what any other group would have done or would have been expected to do if the opportunity had existed'" (131-2).

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