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by William H. Benson

October 14, 2010

     Published in 1950, Nomads of the Longbow was an anthropological study of the Siriono, one of the tribes of eastern Bolivia, in the upper reaches of the Amazon River. A doctoral student named Allan R. Holmberg had lived with the Siriono between 1940 and 1942 and came away believing, and arguing in his book, that they were, “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world.”

     “No clothes, no domestic animals, no musical instruments, no art or design, and almost no religion,” he wrote. The Siriono were, Holmberg announced, representative of the most primitive of human beings, living unchanged for millennium, without technical or cultural skills.

     Even though Holmberg was correct that the Bolivian tribe was exceedingly primitive, he was mistaken that they had always lived that way. In the first ten pages of Charles C. Mann’s  recently-published book, 1491, he pointed out Holmberg’s error. “The Siriono were among the most culturally impoverished people on earth,” Mann wrote. “But this was not because they were unchanged holdovers from humankind’s ancient past but because smallpox and influenza laid waste to their villages in the 1920s.”

     The people that Holmberg lived with were the “survivors of a recently shattered culture,” due to an epidemic, and he was wrong to assume that they had always been “barefoot and starving.” They had not. Mann points to evidence that suggests that the tribes of eastern Bolivia had once built ingenious devices, weirs for raising and harvesting fish, as well as sophisticated mounds and causeways upon  their frequently flooded homeland.

     The story across the Americas for five centuries has been the same. Epidemics of disease have jabbed, like daggers, deep into the Native American communities of North and South America, often before the arrival of white Europeans into their homelands. When the whites finally did arrive, they were startled and then dismissive at what they observed—the pitiful and shocked remnants of the tribe.

     The Pilgrims arrived on the shores of New England in November of 1620 and established their village of Plymouth atop a former Wampanoag village called Patuxet. The sole member of Patuxet, Tisquantum, explained to the English that he had been captured and taken to Europe, and that when he returned five years later, Patuxet had evaporated. Mann wrote, “Scattered among the houses and fields were skeletons bleached by the sun.” The best diagnosis is that the Indians in Patuxet had suffered and died from viral hepatitis A, spread by contaminated food. 

     Christopher Columbus was the watershed. For all of that man’s achievements, his arrival on the shores of the New World in mid-October of 1492 spelled the beginning of a disaster, a calamity of immense proportions for the Native American tribes in the Western Hemisphere. “Holocaust” and

“genocide” are loaded words, and Mann cautions against using them, because Columbus and his followers did not intend to more than decimate the Indians with biological weapons. But it did happen.

     Scholars may disagree as to how and when the first Indians arrived in North America, but those same scholars are in full agreement that the newcomers from Siberia “must have been small” in terms of numbers. Hence, their gene pool was limited, creating remarkable homogeneity, little diversity throughout the Americas. For example, virtually all South American Indians have Type O blood and 90% of North American Indians, but among Europeans it is more variable: A, B, AB, and O.

     Charles Mann underscores the idea that homogeneity does not necessarily indicate inferiority. Columbus and his fellow “Spaniards simply represented a wider genetic array. Asserting their superiority is like saying that the motley mob at a football game is somehow intrinsically superior to the closely related attendees of a family reunion.”

     Homogeneity though can be a good thing though. Prior to Columbus, the Native Americans knew nothing of “cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, newborn anemia, schizophrenia, asthma, and (possibly) juvenile diabetes,” diseases passed down from one generation to another.

     The trauma of such a high death-rate percentage must have traumatized those Native American tribes. Mann wrote, “Living in the era of antibiotics, we find it difficult to imagine the simultaneous deaths of siblings, parents, relatives, and friends.” Family bonds were severed, governing structures loosened, and survivors were suddenly quite alone.


     “Cultures are like books,” wrote the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. “Each a volume in the great library of humankind.” In the sixteenth century,” Charles Mann wrote, after Columbus’s arrival, “more books were burned than ever before or since.” Again and again and again, for five centuries now a disease would reduce, diminish, or virtually obliterate a tribe to a primitive, culturally-backwards stature. It was and is a monumental human loss.