When looking at developed societies in the New World prior to the European arrival, textbooks tend to focus, perhaps understandably, on Central and South America and, namely, the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations. Over time, there developed a myth of European superiority; however, at the time of the Spanish conquests,...
When looking at developed societies in the New World prior to the European arrival, textbooks tend to focus, perhaps understandably, on Central and South America and, namely, the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations. Over time, there developed a myth of European superiority; however, at the time of the Spanish conquests, these civilizations were seen as highly impressive in many regards and in recent years historians have done well to accentuate those aspects of Central and South American societies (centralized states, impressive infrastructure, monumental architecture, organized trade, technological advances, etc.).
Meanwhile, relatively little attention has been paid to North America and the assumption of backwardness persists. The indigenous peoples of North America are often assumed to have lacked empires and to have been tribal and semi-nomadic or nomadic.
Why is that the case?
First, by the time of European contact, the North American societies appear to have already been in decline. For example, the Mississippian culture centered on Cahokia appears to have peaked sometime between 1200 and 1400, decades before Christopher Columbus' arrival in Hispaniola and more than two hundred years before Jamestown, which was the first permanent English settlement in North America. By contrast, the Spaniards encountered the Aztec and Inca empires near their peak.
Second, the North American natives built structures using earth and wood rather than stone. So, for example, Poverty Point in Louisiana, dating to about three thousand years ago, or Monks Mound in Illinois, dating to about one thousand years ago, must have been very impressive structures, but they have suffered from erosion. These earthworks are more difficult to identify and detect and many could have gradually blended in with the landscape and been lost to history. The process of detection and study is further complicated by the problem of access to private property, as was the case for some time with the Newark Earthworks in Ohio.
Third, for those who inhabit North America, it may be difficult to palate that impressive societies were destroyed through the actions of their forebears. It might easier to look at how the Spaniards ravaged the native cultures of Central and South America, for example, than to dwell particularly on something analogous in our own backyard and consider that something impressive was lost to history.
In short, some of the assumed differenced need to be reexamined, particularly in light of recent findings, but the contexts of the North American natives, both of yesterday and today, present some challenges for the historian.