Native Americans

The Enigma of Columbus

“Columbus has been alternately venerated and vilified…he became a lightning rod for controversy…[some] saw him as the visionary that led the way [to the Americas]. Others, preferring to believe that Columbus’s discoveries begat genocide against the New Worlds peaceful indigenous people, uniformly vilify him — as if he had orchestrated the atrocities himself or as if the indigenous tribes hadn’t already been waging war on one another…Still others invest themselves in the pointless argument that Columbus was not the New World’s discoverer…Columbus’s claim to fame isn’t that he got there first, it’s that he stayed.

“…History does not know what to make of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea without passions of one kind or another intruding. The explorer will always remain something of an enigma…He was a man of great charisma whose passion sometimes turned others against him…His advocates marveled at his daring and tenaciousness…His detractors thought him brutal and weak. The only certainty about Columbus is that, for better or worse, he chose to live a bold life rather than settle for mediocrity.” – Martin Dugard writing in The Last Voyage of Columbus.

Every Columbus Day people come out of the woodwork to correct what we were taught about Columbus. Then people correct them, and others correct them. It’s clear few of them have bothered to study the history of they day in any depth. So the quote above is meant to impart that actual history is far too complex to be learned from drive-by memes, or history lessons given by people with agendas.

If you want to speak about a person from our past, you should actually step into his world and follow him around. That’s why the study of history is like time travel. Step on in and give it a try.

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Is Humanity Doomed?

If you have ever read about our ancestors, you were probably taught that, at the end of the last Ice Age, the citizens of North America hunted the many species of megafauna (giant mammals) to extinction. After all, why not assume terrible humans are responsible for all that death?

As it turns out, evidence has been growing of a planet-altering catastrophe as the cause. Most likely an impact event centered over North America (which endured most of the extinctions), with indications of impact craters littered across the East Coast.

Why is this so fascinating? Because it reminded me of the tendency of some people to immediately blame humans for every terrible event to befall the planet. These are the same people, with their dour and glum outlook, whom have been predicting for decades, that we only have a decade or two before we destroy the planet, run out of energy, and starve to death.

Then the decades pass, and the apocalyptic scenarios do not. Continue reading

Categories: Ancient America, History, Native Americans, Prehistory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lost City of Z

David Grann‘s book The Lost City of Z reintroduced readers to the true story of Percy Fawcett‘s epic search for the legendary Lost City of Z in the Amazon. Now, it is being told on the big screen this spring and may be a welcome respite to the same old, action films. Check out the trailer here:

Categories: Ancient America, Forgotten Places, History, Mysteries, Native Americans | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The West that Was

Like many topics, the expansion into the West and the wars with the Indians (Native Americans) gets some short blurbs in history class before moving onto the next era. The Oregon Trail, ’49 Gold Rush, Pony Express, famous cowboy outlaws, Transcontinental Railroad, wagon trails and Custer’s Last Stand are among the familiar touchstones.

Yet he details of this history are far more vivid, fascinating and, sometimes, disturbing.

These three books, by different authors, serve as a trilogy to the western expansion and the “Indian Wars” of the 1800s: The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Most now understand that pushing out the natives was often driven by greed and viewing them as primitives. Custer is no longer a hero. Few, though, know how brutal those wars were, or the hardships of settlers caught in the middle. Nor were many of the Indian nations peaceful peoples. Even fighting among themselves, their warfare was barbaric. That doesn’t justify their extermination; nor does their defense justify all of their own actions. Sometimes, in real history, it’s hard to pick out the villains and heroes. Other times, they aren’t who you thought they were.

For better or for worse, this was a defining era in U.S. history. It is a reminder, that in the not so distant past, people could be convinced to take terrible actions. A much greater nation managed to emerge from the blood and dust, so we should be thankful for that. Now we must respect the past so the wrongs don’t become our future, and those who should have lived are finally remembered.

Categories: History, Native Americans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lost Cities & Deadly Jungles

The search for lost cities is what movies are made of — and many of the films were inspired by real life. A number of authors have set out following the trails and clues left by others in search of what may still be lost. The latest is thriller writer Douglas Preston‘s book  The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Rumors of the White City hidden in the impenetrable jungles of Honduras have persisted for centuries. Preston joined a team of explorers and archaeologists, using a combination new technology and old-fashioned fight-your-way-through-the-jungle, to search for lost ruins.

Indeed, they find a lost city and indications of others. This a true story of adventure into a land of deadly animals and diseases, cartels and fixers, and forgotten histories that may still hold messages for modern man.

As Preston and the authors below have shown us, there is still much of our past to be uncovered. And there are still adventures to be had.

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Sites, Forgotten Places, History, Native Americans | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1492

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

That little rhyme was once taught to all kids. Now, the name Columbus isn’t uttered much, and people just know the mail isn’t delivered today, the banks are closed, and they might have they day off.

However, for a historical perspective on the man who rediscovered America, check out my post from last year.

And, perhaps, we can look forward to the day that mankind rediscovers its spirit of exploration.

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Turn Right, and Meet Me in the Lost World

In my review of travel adventure books, we have searched for Sheba and explorers of the New World. We have also disappeared into the jungles of Latin America on the trail of lost cities. Now we will return to uncovering the ancient world.

Mark Adams set a benchmark for travel adventure lit with his Turn Right at Machu Picchu. This fish-out-of-water follows the trail of legendary explorer Hiram Bingham who brought Machu Picchu, the hidden Inca mountain refuge, to the world’s attention. A perfect combination of Adams’ travails and history — every bit a page turner as a novel.

Adams followed this adventure up with Meet Me in Atlantis. Here he tries to hunt down the true experts of the legendary lost city, among a field known for, how should I put it, fringe thinkers. His hunt leads to many possibilities, and even though not as much adventuring as his first book, it is a refreshing change to the libraries full of bizarre Atlantis speculations.

Now we turn to David RobertsThe Lost World of the Old Ones where he continues his many years of hiking off-trail into the Southwest. Readers will be amazed at how much lies undiscovered and unknown about the civilizations that once populated these states. Roberts chronicles the politics, history and conflicting visions that have attempted to preserve the past — not always successfully. A fascinating and entertaining account that will remind people that United States has its own lost civilization still waiting for discovery

mcpic

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Sites, artifacts, History, Native Americans, Prehistory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What the Vikings Can Teach Us

We’re all taught that Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492, with the caveat that the Vikings arrived centuries earlier circa 1000 A.D. This is always added as a bit of a footnote, as if it’s not all that important. Sure, it didn’t have the impact of the Spanish-backed Columbus voyages, but the Viking voyages have always been begrudgingly admitted to existing. Even before ruins were found in the 1960s, the Viking Sagas and other accounts were largely written off as myth. Even after the finds, the story went like this, “Yes, they came here, probably over a couple centuries, but these infamous explorers never did much of anything.” Doesn’t really make much sense, does it? Why the reluctance to give the Vikings their due? In light of the discovery of a new Viking site in Canada, perhaps our prejudices in studying our own history need re-examined. Continue reading

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Sites, Critical Thinking, Native Americans | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Choose Your Adventure

The busyness of the Christmas season has become nearly a tradition itself. Many are bogged down in the Retail Apocalypse right to the last hours of Christmas Eve. Stores will do anything to get in you in the door and our leaders will smile at the minor economic bump and run and hide when it’s erased with post-holiday debt. Nevertheless, perhaps you’re like me and try to carve some time out of these weeks to tone it down a bit. Perhaps you’d like to go on an adventure? Disappear into the jungles searching for lost cities like Indiana Jones?

No, seriously, you can for only a few dollars.

In The Lost City of Z, you can follow the trail of legendary explorer Percy Fawcett. In 1925, he disappeared into the Amazon looking for the fabled city. When you’re done, head to Honduras in Jungleland and search for Ciudad Blanca — perhaps the fabled El Dorado. Then head back down south and follow the footsteps of Hiram Bingham and explore Machu Picchu in Cradle of Gold.

So take a breath, turn the lights down, and vanish into another world.

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Sites, artifacts, Books, Forgotten Places, History, Mysteries, Native Americans | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discovering Columbus

Last year I asked, Should Columbus be Celebrated? It is a controversial question, since that day in 1492 meant the eventual end of many cultures in the Western Hemisphere. The other side of the sword is that new cultures arose from those escaping the Old World. In all likelihood, using Columbus as the poster child for all that did go wrong is not fair.

One has to dig deep into many studies of the man to even begin to unravel his mind. He was secretive, put himself in the middle of politics and was the target of his enemies. All of this, and the distance of time, have made any study of the explorer a difficult one.

As Carol Delaney argues in Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, acquiring wealth for the Spanish crown was not his primary goal. He sought allies and money for one more Crusade to the Holy Lands. Religious motivation has been suggested before, but by writers couching everything in esoteric conspiracies. It has also been suggested he knew the New World existed. As plausible as that is, most of what we know seems to point elsewhere. Beyond that:

…Delaney depicts her subject as a thoughtful interpreter of the native cultures that he and his men encountered, and tells the tragic story of how his initial attempts to establish good relations with the natives turned badly sour. Showing Columbus in the context of his times rather than through the prism of present-day perspectives on colonial conquests reveals a man who was neither a greedy imperialist nor a quixotic adventurer, but a man driven by an abiding religious passion.

Contrast this to the later Conquistadors who were made up of mercenaries and those looking to set up their own little kingdoms of wealth. In Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas, we get the distinct impression that most of these men cared little about religion other than some unconvincing attempts to use it to justify their actions.

Columbus’ life didn’t begin and end on his first voyage to the new world. It was his fourth that would unfold like an epic film and perhaps best give insight into his motivations. Martin Dugard’s The Last Voyage chronicles mutiny, shipwreck, storms and war. A far different tale than the simple one told in schools. Only by going beyond the simple tales, do we actually begin to peel away the misconceptions and mystery. That curtain will probably never be completely pulled away and certainly Columbus is imperfect and flawed like us all. And maybe that’s the lesson this Columbus Day.

Anyone can change the world, for better, or for worse.

colum

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