I’m reading yet another wonderful book, American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor, and I wanted to share a passage that might shake up your ideas about “ancient tribes.” After describing the grim consequences of the Spaniards’ delusion that there had to be more rich cities laden with gold and silver somewhere north of Mexico, including the devastation of Mississippian culture caused by Hernando De Soto‘s 1539-43 expedition, Taylor says:

The demographic and cultural disaster profoundly disrupted the geography of power in the Mississippi watershed. At the time of Soto’s expedition, the densely settled villages of the powerful chiefdoms occupied the fertile valleys. Poorer and weaker peoples dwelled in small, scattered villages in the less fertile hills, where they lacked the means to sustain a centralized chiefdom. After Soto’s invasion and epidemics, the hill peoples became comparatively powerful as the valley chiefdoms collapsed. Indeed, the dispersed hill peoples suffered less severely from the microbes that fed most destructively on the human concentrations in the lowland towns. And the upland peoples absorbed refugees fleeing from the valleys to escape the epidemics.

In the depopulated valleys, forests and wildlife gradually reclaimed the abandoned maize and bean fields, while the refugees farmed the less fertile but safer hills. The resurgent wildlife included bison, common in the southeast by 1700 but never sighted by Soto’s conquistadores 160 years before. Far from timeless, the southeastern forest of the eighteenth century was wrought by the destructive power of a sixteenth-century European expedition. Soto had created an illusion of a perpetual wilderness where once there had been a populous and complex civilization.

By 1700, the paramount chiefdoms encountered by Soto had collapsed, with one exception: the Natchez people dwelling along the lower Mississippi River. Elsewhere, the paramount chiefdoms gave way to loose new confederations of smaller and more autonomous villages. The new chiefs possessed little coercive power; their people built them no pyramids; and their graves contained no human sacrifices. Eighteenth-century colonists called the principal confederacies the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee.

The new confederations exemplified the widespread process of colonial “ethnogenesis”—the emergence of new ethnic groups and identities from the consolidation of many peoples disrupted by the invasion of European peoples, animals, and microbes. Scholars used to assume that nineteenth-century Indian nations were direct and intact survivors from time immemorial in their homelands. In fact, after 1700 most North American Indian “tribes” were relatively new composite groups formed by diverse refugees coping with the massive epidemics and collective violence introduced by colonization.

The more history I study, the more I realize how fluid, permeable, and ever-changing are the human groupings we have been taught to think of as fixed and ancient. Once again: there is no such thing as purity.


  1. It sounds like Alan Taylor’s scholarship and history are right for the most part. However, one thing historians frequently ignore is that the American Indians were not a united people and that they frequently fought and wared with each other. Despite his transgressions against some Indian tribes, Hernando DeSoto found convenient allies in the Cherokees of Tennessee and North Carolina who were traditional enemies of the Creeks of Georgia and Alabama. The Cherokees continued to have a loose alliance with the Spanish until the arrival of the English in the Carolinas in the 1660’s, after which the Spanish retreated into a defensive shell in Florida where they would remain until 1819 when Andrew Jackson expelled the last of them.

  2. Taylor doesn’t at all ignore that. For instance, in the section I’ve just been reading, he says of the Pueblos: “Not even the speakers of a common language shared a political union. Instead, the Pueblo divided into at least sixty autonomous villages that were often at violent odds with one another. They began, however, to find a new commonality in their common treatment by the Spanish invaders during the winter of 1540-41.”
    I’m afraid we humans have a hard time getting along with each other unless there’s a common enemy.

  3. An excellent summary of the effects of contact from both ecological and cultural angles. Sounds like a book I should read. Thanks.

  4. Language Hat,
    Thanks for your response to my last post. It really needs a little editing but I simply didn’t have the time on a library computer that gives you just 60 short minutes.
    If I may go on a little more…
    Re: “They began, however, to find a new commonality in their common treatment by the Spanish invaders during the winter of 1540-41.”
    This is probably true. The Spanish after all, actually enslaved them and put them on a miserable corn diet which by itself is not good since corn promotes tooth decay and too much of it depletes the body of certain nutrients, especially iron.
    Whether a common enemy unites a people, however, is a mute point. History provides us with examples of situations where it does and doesn’t. For example, The Arab-Israeli conflict has certainly created a lot of unity within the ranks of the Jews and a substantial degree of unity within the ranks of the Arabs. Normally, Jews and Arabs both tend to fight not only between themselves but amongst themselves too. On the other hand, neither the threat of Romans nor the Germanic peoples caused the Celts of Western Europe to unite and most of their territory was later conquered by Romans, Germans and Anglo-Saxons as a result. Likewise, during the war of 1812, some Indian tribes rallied around Tecumseh and took the British side while others sided with the Americans. During this time, Andrew Jackson deftly played the Cherokees off against the Creeks and the Shawnees. Later, the U.S. Army played the Sioux and the Crow off against each other in a simalar manner.

  5. Oh, sure. Having a common enemy certainly doesn’t guarantee unity, it’s just helpful.

  6. A few years back, the Atlantic Monthly published an interesting article called “1491” discussing some of the controversies surrounding scholarship of the pre-European Americas. Among the concepts discussed in the article are the idea that the Amazon rainforest may be a manmade, or at least managed, artifact, a sort of garden. Evidence comes from some genetic analysis of leaf-molds and the satellite obsevation of certain geometric regularities in floodplains. Another subject mentioned was the amazing, swarming populations of bison and passenger pigeons that the eighteenth and nineteenth century had. Such concentrations of species are indicative not of a pristine wilderness, but of an imbalanced ecosystem. The theory mentioned in the article was that the collapse of the lowland Mississippean civilizations opened land and opportunity for the bison, who suddenly lacked a top-predator in sufficient numbers to keep their population in check, and the collapse of farming meant a return to forest for wide swathes of the southeast, all of which came into peak hardwood forestland at about the same time, a few hundred years later. Since passenger pigeons were nut-eaters, their populations boomed and the stage was set for the massacre.

  7. This is the start of the 1491 article here:
    Unfortunately need a subscription 🙁

  8. And the whole article is here 🙂

  9. Thanks! Here‘s the direct link; it’s “1491” by Charles C. Mann.

  10. And here‘s a version that’s easier on the eye.

  11. I just stumbled onto this site through google and noticed ALan Taylor’s name. I had him for a class at UCD and he is a great professor, save his chronic leftist rants e wasted my time with in class.

  12. marie-lucie says

    De Soto :
    I remember reading, not too long ago, that De Soto did not encounter the intact Mississippi high cultures, as the epidemics (carried by travellers from Mexico who had encountered the Spaniards) had preceded him and the inhabitants were gone. Similarly the Mayflower passengers more than a century later found some deserted villages, the inhabitants having either died or fled, leaving behind stores of food. What is the true story?
    “Scummy D”: A short while ago someone left a text exactly similar to this one, except I think for the names.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Ethnogenesis around the Migrations Period in Europe was similarly complex.

    I’m afraid we humans have a hard time getting along with each other unless there’s a common enemy.

    What immediately comes to mind are the stories based on the premise that only an alien invasion could possibly stop the Cold War.
    Catching up from several recent threads:
    Gird/girt correspond 1 : 1 to poetic German gürten/gegürtet (pretty much only used in “to gird one’s loins”). The related nouns, which are in common use today, are Gürtel “belt, girdle” and Gurt “seatbelt” (and a few similar meanings). I guess the former is a diminutive of the latter.
    I haven’t caught up with Piotr Gąsiorowski’s very interesting blog, because I can’t comment there anyway. But just in case this issue has come up: Proto-World isn’t supposed to have been the first language, it’s supposed to have been the last common ancestor of all languages that survive today. Thousands of languages that haven’t left descendants may (or may not) have been spoken at the same time as Proto-World. – As far as I can tell, the evidence for whether Proto-World existed (as opposed to polygenesis, which is less parsimonious) will have to come from language universals or near-universals that are not caused by constraints from human anatomy or from the way the brain works. Similarly, evidence for LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor) comes from such things as the genetic code: it’s identical in most and almost identical in all known organisms, even though it wouldn’t need to.

    To their credit, they do give error estimates, which the traditional glottochronologists didn’t.

    That’s because grottoclonology is a very different method that can’t give error estimates. Bayesian phylogenetics and Bayesian dating were developed for molecular biology and have only recently been applied to linguistics; its origin is completely separate from glottochronology.

  14. marie-lucie says

    the traditional glottochronologists
    There have never been many glottochronologists, and glottochronology has never been a generally accepted subfield, let alone a tradition in historical linguistics. The basic principles were flawed, and their application yielded aberrant results in many cases where the actual history was known, so the method could not be relied upon in cases where the history was not known from actual attestations but had to be reconstructed.

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