Date:         Tue, 1 Feb 2000 06:08:49 -0600
Sender:       Anthro-L <>
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Organization: SocCult Associates
Subject:      Conquest, rationality, and smallpox
Comments: To: "Kuchta, Tim" <T.Kuchta@TCU.EDU>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii

Tim Kuchta said:

> The fact still remains that an ill-equipped and under-manned group of one > culture familiar with brutality came into contact with an established > culture equally familiar with brutality that numbered in the tens of > millions and within 50 years the ideas of the former culture virtually > dominated every part of the continent they contacted. If you don't accept > the explanation I have given, please enlighten me as to how this could have > happened.

1) I, for one, don't accept your explanation because, among other things,

2) it entirely overlooks the part smallpox and other communicable diseases played in the European colonization of the Americas.

Here's what could have happened -- in fact, what actually did happen -- to help produce the European conquest in Mesoamerica.

Europeans had been living with smallpox for centuries -- no, for millennia -- before the conquest of the Americas. The disease was still serious, and killed thousands of Europeans in the 16th century. By then, however, substantial parts of the European population had developed resistance to smallpox through early exposure to varieties of the causative virus (or its relatives, such as cowpox) that were not as deadly as full-blast smallpox. Another factor that increased European resistance to smallpox was the simplest form of natural selection: those most susceptible to the disease were highly likely to die in childhood. Smallpox victims who died before reaching the age of adultery didn`t have a chance of leaving descendants in future generations. Generation by generation, Europeans as a collectivity had developed high levels of smallpox resistance.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the peoples of Mesoamerica probably had no native immunity to smallpox. Devastating waves of epidemics spread quickly after the initial contacts with Europeans -- and they spread far and wide. It's clear that when the Pisarros and their very small party got to Inca territory, smallpox had already disrupted Inca society. Inca sculptors left good portraits of victims of the first epidemic in ceramic form, and they clearly and accurately depict all the stages of smallpox infection as part of those portraits. Those sculptures and the epidemic they document clearly date to the years just before the arrival of the invaders led by Pisarro.

In Mesoamerica, the original epidemic reduced whole populations to mere handfuls. In another message, I noted that one city-state, Cempoala, contributed something on the order of 100,000 warriors to Cortez's second push on Tenochtitlan. Sadly, less than 30 years later there were fewer than 5000 Cempoalans left, and shortly afterwards the entire city was abandoned. Cempoala was wiped out by disease. So was Tenochtitlan, very quickly, during Cortez's siege. So, for that matter, were something like 90% or more of the native populations of the Western Hemisphere.

In many places, whole armies of warriors died of European diseases before the first European arrived. Smallpox traveled farther and faster than the Europeans themselves. In all the places eventually conquered by Europeans, the first conquering victories went to disease. Because of the incredible volume of deaths, family structures broke down; kinship systems fell by the wayside in droves; local authority structures simply fell apart; priests could not hold the people to the forms of traditional faith.

It doesn't take much imagination to figure out what had to have happened next. Just visualize a similar population disaster near where you live. I'm talking about 9 out of 10 people you know dying quickly and painfully while nobody around you has any idea of how to keep them alive, or even relieve their pain and suffering. (Europeans didn't know those things, either. Not in the 16th century, anyhow.) Most of the institutions of your society have disintegrated as disease wiped out the key actors.

And then, out of nowhere, alarming numbers of some new kinds of people start arriving in your home territory. By some miracle, the dread disease that has struck your whole society doesn't seem to affect them at all. These newcomers mercilessly take over your lands, your resources, your sources of such basic needs as water. They even stage a conscious campaign to wipe out your traditional source of sustenance -- as the hunters hired by the railroads wiped out the buffalo.

After all this, along comes some guy called Tim Kuchta to declare that the Europeans won out in what he implies was a fair fight between them and the Mesoamericans. Defending his view, he says that he

> only attempted to use the methodologies of cultural materialism to interpret > empirical facts of history, namely that Europeans came into contact with > North American and meso-American cultures and it was the latter that yielded > to the former. Do the principles of cultural materialism not hold that the > answer lies in the practical and mundane, serving the production and > reproduction needs of a culture? This is the point where I do assert that > it was a more rational view of the universe that permitted the Europeans to > adapt more readily to unfamiliar circumstances.

Well, it IS an empirical fact that the Mesoamericans yielded to the Europeans.

It's also an empirical fact that they were hurt much more by the diseases the Europeans brought with them than they were by any of actions by Europeans at the time of contact and conquest. It wasn't European rationality that gave them their resistance to smallpox, and it wasn't any less rational view of the universe that led so many Mesoamericans to die of that disease.

Just saying that you adhere to the principles of cultural materialism does not prove anything about relative rationality, no matter how much you look at what is "practical and mundane, serving the production and reproduction needs of a culture". Cultural materialism can accomodate plenty of alternative scenarios. I've offered just one here.

The evidence you cite shows no necessary connection between the European conquest of the Americas and any alleged rationality of European thought or superior European ability to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances.

-- mike salovesh <> PEACE !!!