Tag Archives: Americas

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

Brave New World


Columbus’s discoveries overthrew the Medieval conception of Earth’s place in the cosmos. No, he did not discover that the Earth was round. Educated Greeks had known that two millennia earlier. But he also did more than just discover new lands.

The standard, educated medieval view of the cosmos was a synthesis of Aristotle and Christian theology. The universe consisted of larger and larger spheres of more and more rarefied elements: a sphere of earth, a sphere of water, a sphere of air, a sphere of fire (the sublunary sphere, home of meteors), and successive quintessential spheres for the planets, the fixed stars, and heaven beyond. The first two spheres were not concentric, obviously – otherwise the earthly sphere would have been underwater. Instead, Providence had set the earthly sphere sufficiently off-center that some of it – including the whole inhabited world – stuck above the water.


Here’s a representation of the old view, still surviving just after Columbus (from David Wooton’s fine recent book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution). At the very center of the chart, inside the wavy lines representing the sphere of water, is a funny shape: a T-and-O map of the inhabited world. The East, and Asia, are the white area above the horizontal crossbar of the T. The vertical bar of the T is the Mediterranean, with two further horizontal black lines separating Iberian, Italian and Balkan peninsulas to the North (left). Africa is South (right) of the Mediterranean. Not shown on this map, at the very crux of the T, is the holy city of Jerusalem, site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. T-and-O maps aren’t much use for navigation, but they were popular for a long time because they showed a Higher Truth.

It’s hard to square this conception of the universe with the discovery of a whole New World sticking up on the opposite side of the watery sphere. Columbus tried out various theories. At first he imagined that he had reached the (East) Indies. Later, he started thinking that the earthly “sphere” might be pear-shaped (shaped like a woman’s breast, he put it) rather than strictly spherical, and you could reach the site of earthly Paradise (the nipple) by sailing up the Oronoco.

The generation following Columbus, beginning with Amerigo Vespucci, abandoned the nested spheres idea, at least as far as earth and water were concerned. When Medieval writers wrote about “the Earth” they almost always meant just the earthly sphere, minus the Ocean. After Columbus, “the Earth” would come to refer to the whole terraqueous globe.


The Waldseeemüller map (1507) is one of the first to show the Old World and the New. Copernicus almost certainly saw a copy of the map. It spurred him to imagine that the Earthly globe – land and water – could revolve around its own axis, and – even more radically – might revolve around the sun.

Tales of the South Pacific

Around 1200

1) The Patriarchal Age in Polynesia

This is out of chronological order, but it’s a story about Polynesian origins that came out very recently that I couldn’t resist.

Around 3600 years ago there was an encounter between peoples who had tens of thousands of years of separate evolution behind them. Melanesia was settled around 40,000-30,000 years ago, and Melanesians developed their own agricultural tradition. Then around 1600 BCE, seafarers arrived whose origins lay ultimately in Taiwan. They brought the distinctive Lapita pottery tradition with them. The newcomers occupied smaller islands and interstices in Melanesia. Ultimately their descendants would go on to colonize Polynesia.

Curiously, Polynesians today get more than half of their patrilineally transmitted Y-chromosome DNA from Melanesia, while most of their matrilineally transmitted mitochondrial DNA, and even their bilaterally transmitted autosomal DNA, is from Taiwan/Southeast Asia.

There is good reason to think that ancestral Austronesians had a matrilineal social organization, with kin groups emphasizing descent through the female line. This might reflect a history in which men spent lots of time away from home, sailing, raiding, and trading, and chose to leave their households in charge of their sisters. In Micronesia, settled in a separate phase of the Austronesian expansion, matrilineal descent is the rule right up the present – a chief’s heir is his sister’s son, not his wife’s son. Matrilineal societies are often not very intense about policing female sexual behavior (compare the Middle East) and it seemed plausible that when the Lapita folk were passing through Melanesia, the women might have picked up some Melanesian Y chromosomes while their menfolk were off sailing.

But it now looks like the story is different. Ancient DNA from the very earliest Polynesian settlers in Tonga and Vanuatu shows no trace of Melanesian ancestry. Melanesian ancestry apparently came to Polynesia sometime after this initial settlement, perhaps as a result of conquest. And this fits with another aspect of Polynesian kinship: our best reconstructions suggest that Polynesians switched from matrilineal to patrilineal descent early in their history. The recent evidence raises the possibility that a group of Melanesians, arriving later, perhaps as conquerors, may have been responsible for the shift, by setting themselves up as chiefs (in an already rank conscious society) and passing their privileged position on to their sons and their son’s sons – a story already familiar from other parts of the Old World.

(I learned a lot of what I know about kinship in Pacific island societies from my colleague at the University of Utah, the late Per Hage. Unfortunately most of what he wrote on the subject seems to be behind paywalls.)

2) Polynesians in America

Before the great Western voyages of exploration, the Austronesian expansion settled new lands all the way from Madagascar to Polynesia. And Polynesian sailors probably got even further east than Polynesia. Scholars have long been aware of archaeological evidence for contact between Polynesia and America. For example, the Chumash Indians who lived around the Channel Islands in Southern California built distinctive sewn-plank canoes unlike anything in the rest of Pacific North America, but very much like Polynesian vessels. And it’s hard to explain how sweet potatoes could have gotten from the New World to the Pacific islands without human contact – floating in salt water isn’t very likely. A recent scholarly review of a wide range of evidence for contact – linguistic, technological, biological – is here.

Ultimately DNA may provide definitive answers. A report from several years ago that some New World chickens are genetically close to Polynesian chickens now seems questionable. On the other hand, there’s also a recent report indicating American Indian ancestry among Easter Islanders predating Columbus.

3) The Statues That Walked.

Easter Island was settled around 1200, based on the most recent carbon-14 dates. There are two very different accounts of the subsequent history of the island. Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale of ecological overshoot and collapse. After the initial settlement, the island’s population boomed. Without Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to advise them, the islanders cut down all their palm trees.


With no more wood for sledges or rollers, the famous moai statues could no longer be moved from their quarries. And with no more wood for boats, fishing and inter-island trade became impossible. The loss of forests also led to soil erosion. A famine-stricken population rebelled against the hierarchical social order, and wound up resorting to cannibalism in the midst of a population crash. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

But Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, anthropologists who have worked on the island, differ on almost every part of this account.


They suggest that the deforestation of the island resulted from the introduction of rats, accompanying the first colonists. Rats, with no natural enemies to limit them, ate tree seeds. This wouldn’t have had noticeable effects at first, but eventually led to the forests not replacing themselves. Hunt and Lipo also dispute the claim that pre-contact Easter Island experienced a population crash; they argue that the crash came later, with European contact and the introduction of diseases to which the population had no resistance. They also see little evidence of over-exploitation of the environment. Locals were doing the best they could to make a living under marginal conditions. And as to how the moais got from one place to another, well … the islanders said they walked.

This video shows they could be right.

And some back-and-forth between Diamon and Lipo and Hunt is here.

History became legend, legend became myth

7.7 kya. 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.

Clovis and after

13.1 kya. 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.