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Moments that Made America
American history in 100 snapshots
Herewith the start of a second series in A User’s Guide to History. (Brands’s Laws will resume shortly.) This series will consist of brief takes on crucial moments that made America what it is today.
When the Ice Melted (c. 11,000 years ago)
It was a moment in geological time, although by human reckoning it lasted many generations. After a long ice age, the climate of the earth slowly warmed, and as it did, ice caps and glaciers melted, and sea levels rose. The broad isthmus that connected Siberia to North America disappeared beneath the waves. With it disappeared the path of migration that had brought the first Asian hunters to America. The two continents, joined for many thousands of years, were now separated.
The peoples inhabiting those continents gradually separated, too. The Americans developed languages and cultures distinct from those of their Asian ancestors. The new cultures included origin stories that forgot about an Asian origin. As far as the Americans could tell, they had the earth to themselves. For their part, the Asians lost memory of their American cousins, and when they eventually came into contact with Europeans, they had no knowledge to share of the continents or peoples beyond the western sea. To all intents and purposes, the human race consisted of two distinct worlds: of Asia, Europe and Africa, on one hand, and the Americas on the other.
Beyond the different languages and cultures of the two worlds, their inhabitants evolved differently as physical organisms. In particular, their immune systems diverged. Humans, like other organisms, regularly encounter new pathogens, which evolve from earlier forms or jump from other species to humans. In the constant arms race between pathogens and immune systems, the latter evolve to render the new pathogens less dangerous. During the millennia of separation of the two continental clusters, the immune systems of Eurasians and Africans evolved to counter pathogens to which the Americans were never exposed. Likewise, American immune systems evolved to deal with diseases the Eurasians and Africans had never seen.
The divergence continued until the European voyages of discovery in the late fifteenth century ended the separation between the two worlds. Immune systems on opposite sides of the Atlantic were exposed to diseases for which they were unprepared. The contact was more threatening to the Americans than to the Europeans, for the latter, as part of the more numerous and densely-packed portion of humanity, had more pathogens to export.
The effect was swift and often devastating. Within years or decades of first contact with the Europeans, many of the American tribes suffered losses of a half to three-quarters or more of their populations. Epidemics advanced ahead of European settlement. European fishermen, hunters and traders, often without realizing they were carrying pathogens, transmitted them to the Americans, many of whom fell ill and died, but not before spreading them to their neighbors, who spread them to their neighbors.
Some of the Europeans saw God’s judgment in the demise of the pagan Indians. The Puritans who settled New England, for example, observed abandoned villages and concluded that God had removed the previous inhabitants to make way for them. Some of the Indians, too, detected a divine hand, albeit a punishing one, from their point of view. In those pre-scientific days, Providence appeared as good an explanation as any.
The pathogens brought by the Europeans, and the diseases they produced among the Americans, were the single most formative influence on relations between the newcomers and the indigenous peoples. Smallpox, measles, malaria and other diseases destroyed peoples and ravaged cultures, in many cases preempting indigenous resistance to the invasion from across the Atlantic.
Yet the traffic in organisms wasn’t entirely destructive. Plants and animals that had been domesticated in Eurasia were transmitted to America, and vice versa. Wheat, rice, cows and horses crossed the Atlantic from east to west, while corn, tomatoes, tobacco and potatoes traveled in the other direction.
The introduction of horses had a profound effect on life in America, shaping the culture of tribes that adopted them and shifting the balance of power among the various tribes. The peoples of the Great Plains in what would become the United States shifted from hunting buffalo—bison—on foot to hunting on horseback. The great mobility offered by the horse allowed the Lakotas, Comanches and several other tribes to become fully nomadic, and to range and raid far beyond their former territories. The Lakotas dominated or destroyed their rivals on the northern plains; the Comanches did much the same thing on the southern plains.
Technologies crossed the Atlantic, too. European tools and weapons allowed the indigenous Americans to leapfrog from the age of stone, in some cases, to the age of steel and gunpowder. It was the Europeans’ usefulness in this regard that prompted many tribes to welcome rather than resist the newcomers, at least at first. The advantages of steel knives over knives of flint or obsidian were obvious at once; the power of firearms was so great that they initially seemed like magic. Guns were especially valued as affording one tribe an edge in longstanding rivalries with other tribes, assuming the other tribes didn’t get guns themselves. To acquire and maintain the edge became a prime object of Indian diplomacy.
The changes that swept across America with the coming of the Europeans were almost inevitable, and they followed inexorably from the fact of the long separation between the older world and the newer. Sooner or later, Eurasia was going to reconnect with America, and when it did, the former’s pathogens were going to wreak havoc on the latter. Plants and animals domesticated in one hemisphere would change diets and living patterns in the other. Technologies developed in one would be upend habits and power balances in the other. In certain instances, the disruptions were as great in the America-to-Europe direction as in the opposite: potatoes, originally from the Andes, became the primary sustenance of Irish farmers and their families, and when the potato crop failed in the 1840s, most of the Irish population either died or emigrated.
After the long separation, the only thing that could have prevented the disruptions attending the reconnection was the prevention of the reconnection itself. This was very unlikely, for two reasons. First, improvements in transportation technologies—in particular, ships and navigation techniques—made it possible for Europeans to sail farther from home. Humans are inquisitive, acquisitive creatures, and what they can do, they eventually do do, especially in search of profits, like those from the spice trade that propelled Columbus across the Atlantic looking for the Indies.
Second, until the older world reconnected with the newer world, no one realized what disruptions would follow. The genie had to get out of the bottle before anyone knew the genie even existed. By then it was too late: the genie wasn’t going back in.