Columbus Day has come and gone, thank heaven, for this onetime celebration of the Genoese sea captain who discovered America with three tiny ships has turned into an annual orgy of politically correct breast-beating in which poor ol’ Christopher is now painted as a racist, a slaver, a genocide-monger, and a mediocre seaman to boot. A couple of years ago I was obliged to teach a college history class in which all the readings about the discovery of America–no, make that “encounter” between European and Amerindian cultures–centered on smallpox (with only passing reference to the natives’ pestilential gift to Europe, syphillis) and the theory that the Spaniards, by bringing domestic animals to the New World, had ended thousands of years of eco-friendly vegetarianism among the natives.
In the same spirit, the New Yorker ran a Columbus Day-timed piece in September (sorry, it’s not online) about a lost civilization in Brazil, since buried by the rain forest, whose inhabitants had built a fairly sophisticated system of earthworks–roads, moats, bridges, and the like–that connected huge settllements. All very interesting, until I read this quotation from an archaeologist: “All the settlements were laid out with a complicated plan, with a sense of engineering and mathematics that rivalled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time.”
My thought was: What? In “Europe at that time,” mathemeticians and masons had designed and built Gothic cathedrals all over the continent, each one a daunting engineering feat involving some of the most complex and sophisticated architecture ever devised. Leonardo da Vinci had sketched a flying machine. Europeans had invented eyeglasses, telescopes, and machines that prefigured the Industrial Revolution. They had invented the printing press, for heaven’s sake! They had also devised the shipbuilding and navigational techniques that enabled them to escape the winds and currents that had hitherto kept most European sailors fairly close to the European shoreline. Columbus’s feat was no piece of cake.
The Brazilians, by contrast, for all their admirable moats and roads, built no monuments of any kind, didn’t get past pottery in terms of art, and had neither reading nor writing. Their tribal descendants today, living off Brazillian government welfare, don’t do much besides run around naked, fish for piranha, wage murderous wars against their enemies, kill the occasional white intruder, practice polygamy (two wives apiece is standard), and try to keep their television-preferring children interested in the traditional customs, such as secluding teenage daughters inside the house for years until it’s time for the big fertility blowout.
So, after this big dose of Europe-bashing, it was a relief to turn to this fine entry on Roger Sandall’s Cult and Culture blog (thanks, Arts and Letters Daily). Sandall, like me is sick of all the deomonizing of the West and the extolling of bloody-minded pre-Colombian cultures (and believe me, they were all bloody-minded) as gentle, nature-loving enclaves of peace and environmental sensitivity). Sandall writes about the human sacrifice-obsessed Maya of Central America:
“Gallery owners in New York and elsewhere will cry out indignantly about the glories of Maya art. They will show you terra cotta figurines and fine reliefs and paintings and tell splendid tales of ‘kings’ and ‘nobles’ and such. In deference to this view we shall gladly concede that Maya art is not uninteresting. But it is sheer romantic fantasy to mourn the passing, around 900 AD, of an aristocracy of hypersensitive native aesthetes-though anthropologists and art critics have written reams of such stuff.
“Glamorous talk of ‘kings’ and ‘lords’ and ‘nobles’ always sounds better than a realistic description of murderous and predatory chieftains with little but power, conquest, self-glorification, enslavement, and killing and torture on their minds. Yes: they wore spectacular feather head-dresses. Yes: they built sky-high piles of masonry. But their hands dripped blood-incessantly.”
Sandall quotes from Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse,” which tells us what the Maya were really like:
“Captives were tortured in unpleasant ways depicted clearly on the monuments and murals (such as yanking fingers out of sockets, pulling out teeth, cutting off the lower jaw, trimming of the lips and fingertips, pulling out the fingernails, and driving a pin through the lips), culminating, sometimes years later, in the sacrifice of the captive in other equally unpleasant ways such as tying the captive up into a ball by binding the arms and legs together, then rolling the balled-up captive down the steep stone staircase of a temple.”
And that was nothing compared to the sacrifice-techniques of the Aztecs, who were ripping out the hearts of their living captives even as Cortez (with just a few men but a lot of help from non-Aztec tribes who were tired of having their members’ hearts cut out) was supposedly destroying yet another noble civilization. Sandall writes:
“I suppose it all depends on what you expect a civilization to offer. The Maya, and the Aztecs too, offered barbarism plus pyramids. Personally I don’t think that’s enough. What we expect of any civilization worth the name is something that lifts us up, something elevating if not ennobling-something that looks beyond the endless cyclical violence of the barbaric past, however interesting its art may be.”
Sandall compares their civilization to that of the ancient Greeks, who left behind not only spectacular pottery, sculpture, and architecture but also literature, philosophy, and science–all of which spread thoughout the ancient and medieval worlds and are still the foundation of our own Western civilization:
“The ripples of Greek civilization spread globally, and deserved to. There were no ripples from the Maya. No enlightenment. Nothing. Just art and masonry and the dried blood of long-dead sacrificial victims. That is not nearly enough.”
Give me the choice between pre-Columbian Indians and Europeans, and I’ll take Europeans any day.