Mass Society and the Extinction of Native Peoples

LONDON. — 'TC London -- Now that the orgy of breast-beating is over, perhaps we could try to see Christopher Columbus and the European conquest of the Americas in a slightly broader context. After 500 years, we ought to have enough perspective to move beyond childishly triumphant declarations that Columbus didn't really find the Americas because they weren't really lost.

The European conquest of the Americas, together with the comparable events that overwhelmed the neolithic societies of southern Africa and Oceania about the same time, was the last stage in a drama that had already been played out almost everywhere else in the world.


What happened to the Ainu of Japan, the hill tribes of what is now southern China and Indochina, the tribal peoples of India, and the San (Bushmen) of southern Africa was just the same. You can moralize about it to your heart's content, but the fact is that not one significant area remains on the earth's surface that has not been taken over by one mass society or another.

If 16th-century Chinese or Japanese had discovered the Americas, the results for the native peoples would have been just the same. And if nobody had developed ocean-going vessels, most of the little tribal peoples would have been overrun anyway, by the nascent mass societies that were already coming into existence in their own midst.


Most of the estimated 40 million people who inhabited the Americas in 1492 still led the relatively simple lives of hunter-gatherers. A smaller number lived in agricultural villages, like some of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America. But in Central America and in the Andean spine of South America real mass societies were emerging that were every bit as nasty as those of the Old World.

Because we know that the Aztec and Inca societies crumbled virtually at a touch when the conquistadors arrived, we forget how closely they resembled the brutally authoritarian and militarized Bronze Age mass societies of the Old World. But the parallels between the Incas and the Akkadian empire of Mesopotamia, or between Aztec kings and Chin emperors, are very striking.

If Sargon of Akkad and Shih Huang-ti of China had ever been confronted by alien invaders with ocean-going ships and gunpowder, their empires would probably have curled up and died with equally little show of resistance. But Akkad and Chin were virtually alone in their respective corners of the Old World, for it was still early days.

So the Bronze Age empires of the Old World flourished, and were ultimately superseded by even bigger and tougher mass societies several thousand years ago. Whereas a comparable level of mass society was only being reached in the Americas 500 years ago. So Aztecs and Incas had no chance against Spaniards who had another several millennia of militarized mass civilization under their belts.

Given another thousand years or so, the developing mass societies of the Americas would have put paid to all the local tribal cultures without any outside help whatever, just as had occurred in Europe and Asia several millennia before. The native tribal cultures of the Americas are to be mourned, and their survivors recompensed and helped as much as possible, but they were always doomed to lose.

The larger question is why mass societies emerged in the Americas only several millennia after their counterparts in the Old World. One can only speculate that the branch of humankind that originally colonized the Americas arrived relatively late, and had 10,000 years of easy living as they spread across unpopulated territories.

Back in the Old World, which had filled up with hunter-gatherer groups 20,000 or more years before, the pressures to come up with new ways of living that could support a higher density of population would have mounted earlier. So it was the Europeans, proud new possessors of mass civilization, who overran the Americas, and not the other way around.

But this brings up the biggest question of all. Despite these little differences of chronology that made so much difference to the original inhabitants of the Americas, the invention of mass civilization was really almost simultaneous all over the world.


For tens of thousands of years, human beings lived in tribal groups, dabbling here and there in agriculture and animal husbandry. Then, within a span of less than 3,000 years, they started building mass societies all over the globe.

Theories of "cultural diffusion" may explain why the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus valley and China all arose within the same 1,500-year span, but there was no contact then between the Old and New Worlds. Yet within another thousand years New World peoples were doing the same thing.

It does make you wonder whether there is a bit more programming in "human nature" than meets the eye.

Gwynne Dyer is a syndicated columnist.