Hobbies & History

August 28, 2012

I suspect many of us have hobbies. We may paint, repair furniture, cook, hike, bike, read, bird watch, quilt, garden, raise pets, and … there are seemingly endless possibilities for hobbies and how we choose to use our leisure time. One of my hobbies is pottery (not making it, but collecting it). It may sound strange to those of you who don’t share my appreciation for pottery, but it speaks to me, each piece telling a different story. For example, the piece on the left is semi-decorated, while the one below on the right has an image. Typically, an image connotes a piece of some ceremonial importance, whereas a piece with no decoration is considered utilitarian and was probably used daily in a kitchen (as in the piece below and to the left). The piece to the left falls somewhere in between … not a ceremonial piece, but a bit too fancy for daily kitchen use.

A great deal of my interest in pottery stems from a fascination with Pre-Columbian cultures, or what many scholars now refer to as Pre-Colonial or Prehistoric cultures. Through the stories of pottery, I learn a great deal about Pre-Columbian life.

In a previous post, you may recall my talking about Colombian bureaucracy in the context of my getting an identification card in Bogota. You may also remember that I spoke a little about the need for bureaucracies in today’s sophisticated technological societies. I’ve been pondering those thoughts while reading a history about Incan civilization. The Inca Empire, was the largest in pre-Columbian America. The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cuzco in what is now Peru. The Inca civilization arose sometime in the early 13th century, and was known for its genius in state organization and bureaucratic control over peoples of different cultures and languages. The Inca achieved a level of integration and domination previously unknown in the Americas. One of the ways in which the Inca united their empire was through language, imposing the use of Quechua on the people they conquered. A testament to their skill and achievement is still with us today, as many indigenous populations throughout South America still speak a Quechua dialect.

As I pondered thoughts of the Inca while reading, I began to think about why this was so fascinating to me. One thought was that it was new information. I didn’t remember ever learning about the Inca or any other Pre-Columbian cultures while in school. When was the last time you opened a history textbook and read about the Inca? Did you learn about the Inca in history class in high school? If you did, what did you learn? Did you hear about their achievements such as communication and written history recorded on quipus made of ropes and colored threads? Did you hear about their administrative and bureaucratic expertise? Or did they first appear in your history book in 1529 when Francisco Pizarro led a Spanish expedition into Incan territory, the precursor of their ultimate demise?

I don’t know about you, but when I studied what we referred to as world history in high school, I learned about Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, a little about the Byzantine Empire, and a lot about the Holy Roman Empire, followed by feudalism, plagues, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, Napoleonic Wars, and on into more modern Western history. When I learned about US history, it started with a few words about various explorers followed by English colonists, and the struggles of colonial empires … essentially, about the English, French, and Spanish. What little I learned about indigenous cultures here in the Americas before the arrival of European explorers was primarily about nomadic, semi-barbaric people.

In fairness, I suspect scholars knew very little about the indigenous cultures in the Americas until recent years, particularly in the US. But I think we have to ask ourselves why scholars knew so little? Why didn’t they know more? Why weren’t they studying and exploring more? Was it because we figured we knew all we needed to know? Was it because we didn’t think there was much to know? Was it because we didn’t think it mattered? Was it because we didn’t think it had anything to do with Christianity and Christian history? … or European history?

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the Americas may be home to one of the first civilizations. One of the earliest identifiable cultures in the Americas was the Clovis culture, with sites dating back 13,000 years. Some scholars now claim to have identified older sites dating back 20,000 years, potentially thousands of years before the Natufian culture emerged in the fertile crescent. Genetic studies now estimate that the colonization of the Americas could actually date back 40,000 years. Yet, I seem to recall something about “colonization” in the Americas being taught as something that happened after 1492 … when you know who, sailed the ocean blue. It’s probably even more surprising to those of us with western educations to learn that the first major signs of civilization in the Americas dates to 5,000 years before Christ … predating Egypt (~3,000 yrs), Babylon (~2,000 yrs), Greece (~1,000 yrs) and Rome (~1,000 yrs). And I might add here that at the same time these civilizations were rising, and falling, Chinese civilization was emerging (~1,700 BCE). But, again, I don’t recall anything about Chinese history in my textbooks until Marco Polo, a 13th century Venetian explorer.

There is a great diversity of history that many of us know little about, if anything at all. Inca, Aztec and Maya are names that get tossed around as if we know something about them. But mostly we only know about things like ritual sacrifices and that these cultures were “conquered” by Western colonists. So, I’m now going to share a little bit about what I know … and, remember, I’m just a hobbyist and not an archeological or historical scholar.

The Olmec (Mexico)

The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico, dating back to 1,500 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures are thought to have flourished in the region since about 2,500 BCE, but by 1,500 BCE early Olmec culture had emerged as dominant. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and are considered to have laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. The Olmec were known for their artwork, in particular the colossal heads that can be seen in Mexico today. Supposedly, Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America’s most striking … and, no, I don’t have anything Olmec in my pottery collection.

The Aztec Civilization (Mexico)

What we might consider the “Aztec Civilization” is much more complex than I can describe here in a paragraph. Suffice it to say that what we think of as the “Aztec Empire” or the “Aztec Civilization” was, in fact, a broad community (or alliance) of different indigenous peoples in the region we now call Mexico. Given how complicated it would be to try and offer an Aztec history, instead I’d like to say a few words about the region’s decline, because I think it tells another important historical story. We often think about the Spanish conquest of the region in 1519, and I suspect we’ve all heard the expression Montezuma’s revenge. Well, the latter may actually be more significant than a traveler’s joke. What we may not have learned in history books is that the real decline of the region may have had more to do with Spanish disease than weapons. In 1520–1521, an outbreak of smallpox had a major impact on the population of Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. Though actual figures are difficult to confirm, it’s estimated that the loss of life may have been as high as 50%. And while that sounds really bad, disease in the region was just getting started. In 1545, another smallpox epidemic broke out lasting about 4 years. About 30 years later, a five-year epidemic of typhus took its toll. By the time the diseases were finished, what we think of as the Aztec Empire was destroyed. Over the course of a generation, or approximately 60 years, the indigenous population in the region had declined by more than 80%. Disease had done a great deal more than any military campaign.

Tiwanaku (Bolivia and surrounds)

Tiwanaku is an important Pre-Columbian archaeological site in Bolivia and considered by Andean scholars to be one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire. Dating to around the same period as the Olmec, ~1,500 BCE, Tiwanaku flourished as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately five hundred years. In some way, the city-state may have been a previous Aymara civilization; Aymara is one of the primary languages spoken in Bolivia today. This empire, or whatever we eventually decide to call it, appears to have been functional as late as 1,000 CE, a stretch of almost 2,500 years. And, although it has been a few years since I attended high school, I’m pretty confident that this culture that flourished in the Americas for some 2,500 years somehow didn’t get much more acknowledgement than a footnote in my textbooks.

The Maya (throughout Central America)

One of my personal favorites is the Maya. Noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems, the Maya emerged in ~2,000 BCE and continued until the arrival of the Spanish a mere 3,500 years later (expressed with just a hint of sarcasm!). The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing and the calendar did not originate with the Maya, but their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than 620 miles from what we consider to be the Mayan region. Many outside influences are found in Mayan art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than conquest. The Maya peoples never completely disappeared, forming a sizable population today throughout Central America that continues to speak Mayan languages and maintains a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures.

Native (North) Americans (Midwestern USA)

Lastly, I want to share a little about Cohokia, an indigenous city in the Mississippi valley located strategically between the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers. Evidence indicates that it was inhabited as far back as 1,200 BCE. Research appears to indicate that in 1,200 CE it was home to a population the size of a European city at that time. Unfortunately, scholars do not yet know which, if any, Native American groups built and inhabited the city. At present, the best they can do is agree that Cohokia was probably a home-grown civilization (as opposed to being a colony of another civilization). But given the copper images found at the site, and the fact that Cohokia is home to the only known pyramid temple in North America, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see the potential for connections with other cultures throughout Central and South America.

Some Concluding Thoughts

As I ponder this little slice of history, I go back to my “why” questions. Why didn’t I learn about these cultures in history class? To be honest, I don’t harbor any thoughts of conspiracy or intentionality. It’s pretty clear to me that high school history classes were focused on what educators considered to be my history as a Christian of European descent.  In many ways, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to teach anything other than Western civilization. In other cases, we may not have thought it mattered if it didn’t directly relate to Christian European history, as we understood it. Similarly, for example, we didn’t hear much about persecution of the Jews and the pogroms, though many would argue they are historically significant, particularly as they relate to The Shoah (the genocide of approximately 6 million Jews during WWII) and the emergence of the current state of Israel.

Knowing and accepting that my teachers didn’t see a need to teach me a broader spectrum of what I would consider “American” history, doesn’t get me off the hook, though, from learning more about the Americas … North, Central & South. I currently live in Colombia where 72 different indigenous languages and dialects are recognized, where a large percentage of the population claims some level of indigenous heritage, and from where the oldest piece of pottery found in the Americas dates from 3,000 BCE. I’ve come to accept that as a missioner, I have a responsibility to understand the historical foundations of my new home beyond the basics of a typical history book. But I also want to offer to all of you reading this post the possibility that maybe all of us have a responsibility to learn more. As citizens of the US, and of the Americas, we are now bound to indigenous American history. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Whether a people hail from the Mississippi Valley or the Andean Plains, we are all “American.” So, like me, maybe you should consider finding a good book and start reading (some possibilities are listed below).

… all of that from a pottery collecting hobby.

*Note: Information for this post was drawn from reading 1491 and Inca, researching a little on Wikipedia, my memory, and a few random books that I can’t currently recall.

Here is a short bibliography for those who might be interested in further reading. If you read only one book, I STRONGLY recommend it be 1491.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Charles Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Charles Mann (If you liked the Aztec section, you’ll like this book.)

Identity & Power in the Ancient Andes: Tiwanaku Cities through Time. John Janusek

The Ancient Maya. Robert Sharer & Loa Traxler

Inca. Geoff Micks

The Last Days of the Incas. Kim McQuarrie

Cahokia: City of the Sun. Iseminger Mink

Cahokia. Timothy Pauketat

One Response to “Hobbies & History”

  1. jimboston Says:

    Another book to consider is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared M. Diamond. It covers the whole world, including much detail about the development, and challenges, of ancient American societies.


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