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January 20, 2005

20050120: Econ 113 Lecture Notes: Amerindians

Thursday 20050120: Econ 113 Lecture Notes: Amerindians

Index card: Question Roughly 15000 years ago about 1000 humans made it to the Americas across the Bering Land Bridge. An unstressed preindustrial human population (whether hunter-gatherer, herder, or settled agriculture) roughly doubles in a generation of 25 years. If the incipient Amerindian population had remained unstressed, how many American Indians would there have been 14000 years ago? Answer: 1000 years is 40 generations. 2^10 is about 1000. 2^40 = (2^10)^4 = 1000^4. Population would multiply a trillionfold--implying a quadrillion, a one followed by fifteen zeros, American Indians 14000 years ago.

If hunter-gatherers walk a mile a week, they could have covered the 8000 miles needed to cover the Americas in 160 years.

Thus in less than 500 years, we think, the Americas were settled--no longer a resource-rich frontier. Food was scarce, infant mortality ferocious, immune systems frequently compromised (but people--hunter-gatherers--still relatively tall).

New World Agriculture:

Corn miraculous: 40-to-1 yield ratio, compared to 5-to-1 for contemporary wheat or rye... but corn not nutritionally complete. People get short. Farmers all get short. And farming carries you across a mammoth organizational shift. Thugs with spears. Thugs with incense. Maya, Toltec, Mound Builders, Chimu, Inca, Aztecs

30-100 million people in the Americas in 1490. Compare to 100-150 million each in Europe, China, India. Tenochtitlan at 100,000+ larger than Paris at 70,000.

Pizarro: 168 men. Cortez: 500 men.

The Indians in Peru, Dobyns concluded, had faced plagues from the day the conquistadors showed up in fact, before then: smallpox arrived around 1525, seven years ahead of the Spanish. Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, it swept south and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire. Smallpox claimed the Incan dictator Huayna Capac and much of his family, setting off a calamitous war of succession. So complete was the chaos that Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men. Inca Empire: Smallpox: 1525. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618. We're down to 5 million or so in 1600.

Animals and diseases that cross the species barrier...

Technological and organizational gradient: corn, potatoes, squash, beans, stone tools, no wheels, no big animals that are domesticable besides the llama...

Why this big technological gradient? Two heads are better than one. And writing is really important. As I understood Diamond's agricultural argument, Eurasia's agricultural advantage had multiple causes. The multiple causes were indeed that Eurasia had "better" flora (for our long-run purposes: grains with larger seeds), but more importantly that Eurasia was bigger, and that because Eurasia runs East-West rather than North-South knowledge about effective agricultural techniques diffuses much more rapidly and successfully. Add all these reasons together and you can see why Eurasia is (still) the most densely populated region of the world, and why the world's diet is based on wheat, rye, rice, and their cousins.

I thought that one of Diamond's points was that American Indians had done rather well--with corn and potatoes--even though the original flora was not that appetizing (have you ever seen a wild corn plant?). But two heads are better than one. Add Eurasia's large size coupled with easy diffusion along the East-West axis and "better" wild grains and it would have been extraordinary if New World agriculture had been more developed than Old World. Had the American Indians been given enough time, then even with low population densities they might have selectively bred and domesticated sumpweed. But their independent history was cut short in 1500...

Posted by DeLong at January 20, 2005 05:38 PM


I thought that the Folsom point had proved that the europeans arrived first. Only one tribe in N and S America had begun production of copper. When your best cutting edges come from a piece of broken glass, how can you fight against Toledo steel?

Posted by: big al at January 20, 2005 06:19 PM

I remember wondering (and at one point considered pursuing it more seriously) if there has been any rigorous empirical tests of the idea that technological innovations spread (back in the old days of course) faster east-west rather than north-south? If so, estimates of how much faster, would let us draw conclusions as to whether the geographical orientation of Eurasia vis-a-vis Americas and Africa was such an important factor.
Of course one would need to account for natural "border effect" of mountains, deserts etc.

I ask because while I think the basic idea makes sense I'm a little sceptical of the magnitude of this effect. Particularly I think size of the continents and existence of the natural barriers (big mountains, big deserts) possibly played a much larger role then just the axis that a particular land mass was situated along.

Also, thinking about Eurasian history (and even African history) in big picture terms, the striking thing is how much these folks liked to wander around. Up until the 13th century you've got succesive waves of migrations sweeping out of somewhere in Asia, hordes of barbarians and all that. The general picture of American history I have in mind is that once it was populated densly enough, people stayed where they were (yes I know this isn't totally correct). You don't have the Great Lakes tribes get up and overwhelm the Toltec empire.
Of course, this by itself neither refutes nor supports the view that east-west is "better" than north-south.

Posted by: radek at January 20, 2005 06:33 PM

Why don't you at least mention some of Jack Wetherford's points in his books Indian Givers and Native Roots. Nutritious foods included hundreds of varieties of potatoes; corn, beans and squash; domesticated turkeys; tomatoes; peppers; plenty of meat (deer, buffalo, small game); fish and other seafood; pinon nuts; acorns; pecans; cacao; bananas; etc., etc.

Add a dash of common sense, and a whole different scenario from Diamond's may be seen. Please do not make home-economic allusions that can so easily morph into justifications for the Conquest.

Posted by: jcrit at January 20, 2005 07:10 PM

I think Daimond's point is not so much that technology generally spreads better east-west than north-south, but that agricultural technology specifically is more applicable when transfered 600 miles to the east or west than 600 miles to the north or south.

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 20, 2005 07:12 PM


My understanding of Diamond's argument is that it was agricultural techniques and products that spread. This was due, IIRC, in large part to the fact that as you move east-west climate does not change nearly so much as if you move an equivalent distance north-south. So if a crop is successful in spot X, it more likely to also be successful in spot Y, 100 miles to the west of X, than in spot Z, 100 miles to the south.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at January 20, 2005 07:15 PM

A huge difference between the Americas and Eurasia as far as migration is concerned is the horse, which went extinct in North America but not in Asia. Hence, no sweeping migrations of nomads in the Americas, but more pushing and shoving locally.

Posted by: David W. at January 20, 2005 07:44 PM

reason 4 euro discovery of w. hemi: european weakness vis. ottoman empire allied (at times) w/venice or genoa. euro nations couldn't trade eastward w/o large sums to turks to operate in levant and anatolia trade districts, then more $$$ to ital merchants for mediterranean transport. mediterranean power shift to euro nations w/ battle of lepanto in 16th century, "new world" already discovered. if the turks had been defeated earlier, the voyages of discovery might not have happened when they did.

Posted by: p.a. at January 20, 2005 07:58 PM

I suspect there were plenty of nomadic migrations in the Americas. The thing is, most of the American civilizations didn't have a written record, so we don't see their struggle against the "sea peoples," as we do for the Egyptians.

And none of this is a "justification" for the Conquest. Explanation, yes. Justification, no.

Posted by: M. at January 20, 2005 08:00 PM

jcrit, why do *you* suppose it happened that Castillians landed in Mexico and conquered the Mexicas, rather than Mexicas landing in Castille and conquering the Castillians? Or was it just dumb luck, do you think?

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 20, 2005 08:26 PM

European discovery of the western hemisphere has to be understood as fundamentally a part of the cultural nature of the Renaissance and Reformation that were contemporary with it. Both these were movements of cultural dis-intermediation. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Renaissance went directly to classic sources. Luther ignoring the Roman Church went directly via the Bible to discover early Christianity. Columbus simply applied this idea of elminating intermediaries to the Asian trade as did da Gama, but they took different routes. Colmbus thought he had reached the outskirts of Asia but was mistaken; only Vespucci understood that he had found a New World. The Ottomans were no obstacle to oriental trade but in fact sea transport was cheaper than land so a 100% sea route to the Orient would tend to undercut a land/sea connection. But pepper still came to Europe via Venice even after the Portuguese began to bring it directly from Asia.

Posted by: HJ at January 20, 2005 08:39 PM

There is not merely a trading network across the South China Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Red Sea or Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, Italy, but also the Silk Road across the sea of grass between China and Germany.
Papermaking for books is known to have crossed the sea of grass at a specific date when some Chinese paper maker apprentices that had been drafted into the army were captured by an Arabs in a battle with a Chinese led army in the 'stans.

Posted by: walter willis at January 20, 2005 10:07 PM

New world organized civilization spread from the equatorial zones north and south. New worlders weren't mentally blank 15 kbp, they were very sophisticated technologically. They had complex societies with stratification quite a while back.
Europe was colonized from the south, retreated in the face of glaciation, returned, back, then returned again maybe 20 kbp ago, following large fauna north. Timewise, Europe had access to the middle east, crossroads for education and technology, and cross-pollinated there with the Chinese, Africans, Arabs, etc. Greeks and successors good at recording and preserving useful information. New world-not much written language-disadvantage in negotiations with people of the written word.
This is a way bigger story than Dimond's book. I have been studying these questions for 20 years and it just gets more convoluted in specific but in general

Posted by: bigfoot at January 20, 2005 10:41 PM

Europeans are just meaner, more vicious and aggressive in getting what they want.

[Than the rulers of the Aztec empire? You've got to be kidding.]

As Europe became more civilized, they only got worse-a marginal environment with shitty weather and vague truces within self-designated ethnic groups. Not really better than anyone else. New world people ran out of time, and didn't have a real agenda for contact with Europeans. Europeans had state level organization and romanticized the mass slaughter of opponents long before those Portugese and French (Actually Basque) fishermen made it to the new world (cod fishing the Newfoundland Banks), themselves behind the Norse (who met the Skraelingers, Thule Eskimo people quite advanced and capable of surviving climactic changes).
It is the genocidal urge of the Eurasian people that make them (us) the dominant people. We like killing, we like losing once in awhile so we get our war frenzy back on.

Posted by: bigfoot at January 20, 2005 10:47 PM

The reason there weren't any horses in the Americas is because the Indians ate them all, just like they did the mammoths and the sabertooths. I guess this was before they got into the whole "harmony with nature" thing. Of course, back then nobody knew that horses would turn out to be good for riding in fifteen thousand years or so, so you can't really blame them. But it's too bad they didn't eat the buffalo to extinction and leave the horses, rather than vice versa.

Posted by: Half at January 20, 2005 10:55 PM

Hmm.... interesting question. Was Spanish culture coarser and more ruthless in its treatment of its fellow humans than Mexica culture? Certainly both had rather militaristic states, with bureaucratic systems designed to concentrate wealth from subject peoples toward the state. On the other hand, I think that the Mexicas were probably less ruthless in their demands for homogeneity and conformity within their state. If it had been Mexicas doing the Reconquista, they probably would have let unconverted Jews and Muslims stay in Spain -- they just would have demanded huge tributes from them and occassionally sacrificed them to Huitzilopochtli or something.


This would have left them somewhat richer than the Spanish, but in some ways more vulnerable too, as they found out when Cortez found a ready band of converts to his cause in the subjugated countryside of the Aztec Empire.

Posted by: Julian Elson at January 21, 2005 12:19 AM

We know that the great epidemics spread to the North and decimated the Natives of the present US in a catastrophe they called the Great Dying. But when the British colonized Virginia, it was apparently populated up to the carrying capacity. Did the Great Dying not reach the East Coast? Or had the Native population recovered in 100 years or so?

Powhatan ruled an area from the James to the Potomac. This seems like a large area to control without writing or a large priesthood. In one account, he left untaxed the Native staple, maize, but exacted a 90% tribute on luxury crops, which included everything else. What did he use it for? Obviously one can never have too much of the medium of exchange, especially luxuries. but he had no cities or building programs and no priestly caste.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at January 21, 2005 04:28 AM

Elson needs to read up on the Reconquista. Unconverted Jews and Muslims WERE allowed to remain in the Christian areas of Iberia during the Reconquista. The were under royal protection and payments from them for this were demanded. The moves to force them to convert or emigrate came at the END of the Reconquista.

Posted by: HJ at January 21, 2005 04:37 AM

Diamond looks at corn from the standpoint of European agriculture, rather than from the standpoint of traditional Indian agriculture and therefore I think his analysis is a bit misleading. For corn at least, the major impediment in moving it from north to south is day length, not temperature.

[Well, yes, that's what Diamond says]

Also, I'm not so sure that the world's diet is based on wheat, rice, rye etc. to the extent people might think. In large chunks of Africa corn is the main food crop, as well as Latin America. In northern Burma, where I worked briefly on a crop substitution project, corn is the second major crop, and in some areas of Burma is the major crop. And don't forget all that corn syrup in every product you buy.

Big Al, read the Spanish accounts. The Aztecs were decapitating Spanish horses with clubs lined with broken glass. In the SE USA De Soto's men gave up wearing chain mail after an Indian captive shot an arrow through two coats of mail drapped over a basket.

Half, ate all the sabertooths? I think not. Only the whites would be mah-bain enough to do that.

As a bit of an aside, Aiontay is my Kiowa name; I'm named after my great, great grandfather. The name is actually connected with corn, which is a bit odd given that Kiowas were buffalo hunters.

Posted by: aiontay at January 21, 2005 05:09 AM

The amount of population shift involved in nomad migrations is often exaggerated. The steppe was very thinly populated, and the nomads mosttly just replaced the ruling elite and military caste.

As far as "Why didn't China discover America first", China didn't go in that direction. As to why China didn't discover Europe first, there is an answer. During the Ming dynasty in the XVc Chinese navies under Cheng Ho / Zheng He dominated the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar. If they had maintained that domination and had made it self-supporting, the Western Sea empires probably never would have happened -- at least they would have met much stiffer resistance. The Chinese ships were armed with cannon and were much bigger than the Portuguese ships that first rounded the Cape.

However, these expeditions were money-losing state projects and came to and end forever when there was a Ming power shift. My surmise is that these navies were a relic of the Yuan / Mongol navies that reached Java, and that traditional Chinese insularity had reasserted itself. However, that reasserion was in no way inevitable; the choice of one emperor and one prime minister could have kept the the project alive. There's a big tendency among historiands to claim that things that didn't happen, couldn't have happened, just so they can seem masterful.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 21, 2005 07:35 AM

With no metals and no good beasts of burden, plus a deficit in the immunological arena, the people of the Americas were at a distinct disadvantage.

Just because an occasional arrow will kill someone in iron or steel armor, doesn't mean it is not useful in some circumstances. Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century tells a similar story of the penetrating ability of a Welsh longbow arrow. Armor did not cease to evolve then nor after Crecy or Poitiers in the 14th c.

Posted by: sm at January 21, 2005 10:00 AM

Rigorous testing of E-W vs. N-S? You could take the whole history of the Eastern Hemisphere as an indication.

Posted by: sm at January 21, 2005 10:07 AM

Half, I read that the Indians did kill off all the buffalo. The buffalo in the Americas today supposedly came across from America at the same time as the Indians, about 12,000 years ago. I think this is also true of the modern (not the dogfaced) bears, the modern (not the dire) wolves, and some species of deer.
I would like to see a citation on that in Nature or Science, with the DNA numbers to back it up. Just because I read it somewhere (Flannery's book?) is not a good citation. But I did read it somewhere so it may be true. I think it's new, probably in the last eighteen months.
Well, I went and googled it, and here is the pop citation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/animals/features/260feature2.shtml

Posted by: walter willis at January 21, 2005 11:14 AM

Read "1421" by Gavin Menzies who postulates and then supports with DNA and other archeological evidence that in fact China DID not only discover the Americas, but circumnavigated and mapped the world in the early 1420's, and that the European "explorers" were, in fact, following copies of Chinese maps in their treks to the "New World". Fascinating reading.

Posted by: MaryR at January 21, 2005 01:12 PM

I think the line that Eurasians had better crops is dubious. South Americans had very good crops - potatoes revolutionised Europe's population carrying capacity (everybody knows about Ireland but it happened generally).

The lack of disease experience is probably more important. Had 3 shiploads of Aztec warriors landed at Cadiz they would all have coughed up their guts in a few days. By and large this is exactly what kept the technically far superior Europeans from conquering Africa until quinine.

Posted by: Neil Craig at January 21, 2005 02:49 PM


It was more than an occassional arrow. De Soto's men arranged for the archery display because they were suffering frequent casualty from Indian archery. After the demonstration, they abandoned the wearing of mail, which I doubt they would have done if mail was limiting their wounds and deaths due to arrows to "occasional" ones. Furthermore, not all Spanish military adventures were as successful as Mexico and Peru. De Soto cut a bloody swathe through the SE, but he still suffered numerous casualties. At one point his expedition was almost wiped out when the Indians attacked at night. The expedition De Vaca was with was also roughly handled by the Indians in Florida, who again used archery to defeat Spanish steel. After whipping the Aztecs, the Spanish then were stalled in the silver-bearing regions of northern Mexico by nomadic tribesmen for a number of years. Certainly steel was a real technological advancement. Indians acquired metal tools as soon as they could. However, I suspect steel's advantages were more in the non-military realm until Europeans used steel to make springs for flintlocks. I'd say Diamond overrates the impact of steel weapons in his chapter"Collision at Cajamarca".

Oh, and the Spanish armor was lighter and less complete than that of the French at Agincourt, and you know how much that armor that had evolved since Poitier helped the French. Also, the prefered hand-to-hand weapon of the English archers wasn't a sword, but a maul, a wood and lead contraption that wasn't that different than the Indian's war clubs.

Walter Willis, there actually a couple of species, antiquus and occidentalis before the modern bison species. But if, as you state, the Indians arrived with the modern species, who killed off the previous species? Must have been those Solutreans masquarading as Folsom big al talked about. In that case, the white folks killed off the bison twice.

Posted by: aiontay at January 21, 2005 03:24 PM

Jared Diamond does a great job of explaining the reasons for Eurasian predominance, but people often overlook Alfred Crosby, who in Ecological Imperialism and the Columbian Exchange covered much the same ground 20 years ago.

Crosby also explains another important long-term advantage of the colonists, namely that cattle, sheep, horses, wheat, etc. thrived outrageously in North America, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, due to absence of natural pests and diseases, and the ecological gaps still remaining from the Pleistocene extinctions.

“But why was it Europe, and not China or India or the Middle East or Africa, that discovered America?”

Diamond notes (I think in a lecture rather than his book) the advantage of the multiple state system of Europe. The Ming Dynasty explorations mentioned by John Emerson were ended by the decision of one emperor, while Columbus could hustle from one royal court to the next until he found a sponsor.

Simple locational advantage is another reason. Spain, Portugal, Britain, France all had obvious prime locations for trans-atlantic travel.

Crosby notes a reason as to why it was the Spanish and Portuguese who led the way. They had done the homework in building an understanding of the Atlantic current system which nobody else had.

When you consider that the Iberians also had the benefit of the Jewish and Muslim cartographic tradition of Al-Andalus, and all that crusader fury left over from the reconquista, you can see them almost as a loaded gun pointed at the Americas.

Posted by: Mike D at January 21, 2005 04:27 PM

Don't forget chillies, peanuts, squash, casava, and sunflower seeds for vitamins, and wormseed as an antiparasite medecine.

Posted by: walter willis at January 21, 2005 08:52 PM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at January 21, 2005 11:03 PM

Brad wrote:

:::: But why was it Europe, and not China or India or the Middle East or Africa, that discovered America? That is a much harder question... ::::

Something is missing here. Why not ask about medieval Japan? They had the best chance to hop over the Bearing Strait.

Imagine, an America full of Samurais...

Posted by: MarcinGomulka at January 24, 2005 06:48 PM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at February 14, 2005 04:05 AM