Tag Archives: Americas

History became legend, legend became myth

7.8-7.5 thousand years ago

Here’s a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865 (much abbreviated here).

One time when the Chief of the Below World was on the earth he saw Loha, the daughter of the tribal chief. Loha was a beautiful maiden, tall and straight as the arrowwood. The Chief of the Below World saw her and fell in love with her. He told her of his love and asked her to return with him to his lodge inside the mountain. But Loha refused to go with him. The Chief of the Below World was very angry. He swore he would have revenge on the people of Loha, that he would destroy them with the Curse of Fire. Raging and thundering on the top of his mountain, he saw the face of the Chief of the Above World on the top of Mount Shasta. From their mountaintops the two spirit chiefs began a furious battle. Mountains shook and crumbled. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The Chief of the Below World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and the valleys. The Curse of Fire reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, they found refuge in Klamath Lake. [Eventually the Chief Below the World] was driven into his home [by the Chief above the World], and the mountain fell upon him. When the morning sun rose, the high mountain was gone. The mountain which the Chief Below the World had called his own no longer towered near Mount Shasta. For many years the rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell upon the Chief of the Below World. Now you understand why my people do not visit the lake. From father to son has come the warning “Do not look upon this place.”

Almost 7,700 years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed most of what had been the towering Mount Mazama, leaving behind a 4,000 foot deep crater that became Oregon’s Crater Lake. The Klamath Indian story about the origin of the lake preserves a clear memory of this event, from long before the invention of writing.


The story, and its connection with real geological events, is presented in When They Severed Earth From Sky. The book demonstrates in this and many other cases how myths and legends can preserve detailed information about the past. If you’re interested in how earlier generations remembered history and conceived of the past – a big topic on Logarithmic History – the book is strongly recommended. It’s intellectually worthy, setting forth general principles that govern the formation of legends, myths, and other oral history. And it’s also a fun read, casting new light on familiar figures like Prometheus (related to current Caucasian myths, and tied to volcanic Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus) and the Golden Calf.

And here’s an article on Aboriginal Australian memories of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.



12.3-11.6 thousand years ago.

Luzia is an adult female Homo sapiens fossil from central Brazil. She’s named after Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis from Laetoli, but she’s no relation, or at least no more relation than the rest of us. When Luzia was discovered (1975) she presented quite a puzzle. She’s one of the earliest known South American human fossils. Her skull, well-preserved, looks nothing in particular like the skulls of later Indians. It’s more similar to the skulls of modern Australian aborigines and Africans. She’s also short, under five feet.


There hasn’t been any analysis of Luzia’s DNA but we now may have a better idea who her relations are. Southeast Asia was occupied for tens of millennia by hunter-gatherers of the Hoabinhian culture, which persisted through melting ice caps and rising sea levels, up to the arrival of farmers originally from South China. Scattered groups of foragers in the region are remnants of this population. It is likely that the Hoabinhians, or nearby Melanesians, or related folk, traveled up the Pacific coast and were the first human arrivals in the New World. (A direct trip across the Pacific is another possibility, but seems less likely.) These early Americans were largely replaced (they may never have been very numerous) by the ancestors of modern Indians, making a modest contribution to the DNA of the latter.

We noted earlier that there seem to be linguistic traces of this early migration in some of the languages of South America. It’s also worth mentioning that early twentieth century anthropologists thought Melanesia and native Amazonia show some striking cultural similarities, especially relating to men’s houses, all-male cults, myths of matriarchy, and sacred flutes. Some anthropologists have coined the term “Melazonia” to capture the similarities in social systems in the two places. Here’s from a recent book.

One of the great riddles of cultural history is the remarkable parallel that exists between the peoples of Amazonia and those of Melanesia. Although the two regions are separated by half a world in distance and at least 40,000 years of history, their cultures nonetheless reveal striking similarities in the areas of sex and gender. In both Amazonia and Melanesia, male-female differences infuse social organization and self-conception. They are the core of religion, symbolism, and cosmology, and they permeate ideas about body imagery, procreation, growth, men’s cults, and rituals of initiation.

Note that “40,000 years” may be too big by a factor of 3. The usual assumption has been that these similarities result from parallel cultural evolution  – easier to imagine for cultural evolution than for language history – but maybe there is an ancient historical connection too.

Clovis and after

The Clovis culture lasts less than half a millennium. But it coincides with a major change in the North and South American fauna: specifically with a wave of extinctions of large animals. We’ve seen something like this before with the human settlement of Australia. There’s still controversy about the causes, but it seems likely that humans played a major role in both extinctions, even if climate change also mattered.

The mass extinctions caused by humans differ significantly from the five generally recognized earlier mass extinctions, which mostly seem to have resulted from physical disasters, like asteroid strikes and poisonous gases. A better analogy for human mass extinctions might be found all the way back at the beginning of the Cambrian period, 540 million years ago. Then, a relatively low-key, more-or-less predator-free fauna (the Ediacaran fauna) faced a devastating challenge from newly evolved, mobile, visually guided predators. The Human Revolution may come to rival the Cambrian Revolution in its biotic consequences.

Clovis and before

13.8-13.1 thousand years ago

For a long time the Clovis culture, associated with these spear points found across North America, looked like the earliest evidence of human occupation of the Americas. Clovis people are often thought to have entered the continent through an ice-free corridor that opened up between glaciers in Western Canada (although there are other possibilities).


But we now know that there were people in the Americas before Clovis. The Monte Verde site in Chile, dating more than a thousand years earlier (tweeted yesterday) is the best evidence. And just in the past few years, we’ve learned something about the genetics involved. Modern Amerindians are overwhelmingly a mixture of East Asian and Ancestral North Eurasian ancestry. But a small fraction of their ancestry is something else: it connects them with some relict populations in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. (In current Southeast Asia these populations have been pushed aside by later arrivals.) The best current explanation for this pattern is that an early population traveled along the Pacific Coast all the way from Southeast Asia to Chile by 15 thousand years ago, when the inland route was still blocked by ice. When Clovis and related peoples made their way to the New World, these early migrants were largely replaced, but left behind a trace of their ancestry.

There’s actually some linguistic work that’s consistent with the genetics. Johanna Nichols is a linguist who has identified various linguistic strata in the New World. These are not the same as language families. Think of it this way: the Khoi-San languages of Africa are famous for their click sounds. These languages, spoken by Bushmen and other isolated hunting and gathering groups, may be extinct before the century is out. But click sounds have been borrowed by some of the Bantu neighbors of these groups. While these non-Khoi-San click speakers do not constitute a language family, they do tell us something about pre-Bantu language history.

Nichols finds a far-flung linguistic stratum distinguished by a large number of otherwise rare features, in both Melanesia and southern South America. We might compare Nichols work on linguistic strata with Greenberg’s work on Eurasiatic. The two use different methods. Both are intensely controversial within linguistics. But in both cases, it looks like distant geographical affinities proposed by linguists get support from the latest genetic research. (We’ll be getting to more generally accepted language families later this month on Logarithmic History.)

The Great American Interchange

For most of the last 100 million years, South America was an island continent, like Australia, with its own peculiar mix of species, largely isolated from other continents (although monkeys, and guinea pig relations, rafted across.) By contrast, North America was intermittently connected with Eurasia and exchanged species off and on. South America supported a rich array of marsupials, including a marsupial version of a saber-toothed tiger. It also had predatory flightless “terror birds” that seemed bent on reoccupying the two-legged predatory dinosaur niche.

terror bird

There was also a profusion of notoungulates (probably distantly related to hoofed animals in North America and Eurasia), and liptoterns. (Below is a reconstruction of a late surviving liptotern, Macrauchenia, looking like a Dr. Seuss invention.)

South America was close enough to North America for the two continents to start exchanging species by 14 million years ago, but the really massive exchange began with the establishment of the Isthmus of Panama, and climate changes, about 3 million years ago. 38 genera of land mammals walked north from South America. 47 genera walked south from North America. So the initial exchange was unbalanced; the subsequent evolution was even more so. Only a handful of South American invaders – notably armadillos and (for a while) ground sloths – succeeded in establishing themselves in North America, while North American invaders generated a profusion of new species. Many of the really distinctive South American forms would go extinct over the next millions of years.

Paleontologists dispute the causes of the turnover, but it looks an awful lot like North American species had a competitive edge. This is one instance of a phenomenon we’ve seen already in animal evolution, and will see again in human history, of large land areas generating more competitive forms.

Globalization and its discontents

According to some paleontologists, evolution proceeds by fits and starts. Long periods of stasis, without much change, are punctuated by pulses of rapid evolution accompanying speciation. Human history too often proceeds by fits and starts. In the year 2016 (which we cover this December 31 on Logarithmic History) several electoral upsets occurred – the British vote to leave the European Union, the U.S election of Donald Trump to the Presidency – that suggest that a long period of consensus about politics is due to be punctuated.

From Old Deal to New Deal

It’s interesting to compare-and-contrast the current situation in the United States with an earlier episode of stasis and punctuation in American history. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, there was an effective détente between Republicans and Democrats, with each party getting their way on the issues that mattered most to them. The Republicans were the party of Big Business, and Big Business for most of this time was a supporter of protectionism and high tariffs, meant to insulate domestic industry from foreign, especially European, competition. In the industrializing Northeast, much of the middle and working class was on board with this program, welcoming protection from low-wage labor in other countries (although in big cities, Democrats and even Socialists had a base of support from recent immigrants). The Democrats, meanwhile, were above all the party of Race, specifically in the white South, which was effectively under single-party rule, dedicated to keeping African Americans (and low class whites) disenfranchised. The agricultural South and West would have preferred more a more open trade policy, and the industrial Northeast had some misgivings about segregationist excesses, but the two sides managed to keep the peace with one another.


With the onset of the Great Depression, being the party of Big Business stopped working for the Republicans. A very different political alignment came into being with the New Deal. Intellectually too there were major shifts, especially in thinking about race, so that the cultural world of, say, 1950, seems miles away from the world of 1900.


From “The World is Flat” to a Fractured World

From the 1970s until just this year, a different bargain held between Republicans and Democrats. Curiously, this bargain was a kind of inverted version of the earlier détente between the parties. The Republicans were still the party of Big Business, but with the United States having matured into an industrial superpower, this translated into support for reducing barriers to international trade. And the Democrats were again the party of Race, but now non-whites were a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, making up for the party’s weak showing among whites. In particular, Democrats dominated the African American vote as effectively as they had once dominated the white Southern vote. Intellectually, this bargain translated into an ideological fusion of economic internationalism (what left wing critics would call neo-liberalism) and multiculturalism. Geographically, the pattern of support for the two parties was almost exactly the opposite of what it had been a century earlier.


Under the surface, there were signs that the Republican embrace of Big Business and free trade and the Democratic embrace of multiculturalism left a lot of voters dissatisfied. But it took a very unusual political campaign to bring this discontent to the surface. Like Roosevelt, Trump won with the support of Northeastern voters who would previously have supported the other party’s candidate (or stayed home). But analogies with the past go only so far. Trump’s margin of victory was far narrower than Roosevelt’s. The next few years seem more likely to witness an Age of Discord than a stable new political alignment.


Of cannibals


Three of these men [Tupi Indians from Brazil], ignorant of the price they will pay some day … ignorant of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin … poor wretches …were at Rouen, at the time the late King Charles IX was there [in 1562]. The king talked to them for a long time; they were shown our ways, our splendor, the aspect of a fine city. After that someone asked their opinion, and wanted to know what they had found most amazing. They mentioned three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and I am very sorry for it; but I still remember two of them. They said that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many grown men, bearded, strong, and armed, who were around the king (it is likely that they were talking about the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that one of them was not chosen to command instead. Second (they have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another), they had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could endure such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.

I had a very long talk with one of them. … When I asked him what profit he gained from his superior position among his people (for he was a captain, and our sailors called him king), he told me that it was to march foremost in war. … Did all his authority expire with the war? He said that this much remained, that when he visited the villages dependent on him, they made paths for him through the underbrush by which he might pass quite comfortably.

All this is not too bad – but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.

Of Cannibals. Essays of Montaigne