A Babel of languages

I’ve always thought that Alvin’s Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, was extraordinary in its examination of the Americas before contact. He started with languages. Ironically, it was often missionaries, intent on Christianizing and changing people, who learned indigenous languages, intent from that day through today’s Moody Bible Translators on giving them back scripture.

But some missionaries were captivated by language itself, as were some army officers, adventurers, and a few academics who described themselves as “ethnologists.” In 1891, Major John Wesley Powell—of Colorado River fame but then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian—submitted the seventh annual report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, in which he described attempts at learning the proper names of North American Indian tribes and the classification of their languages. The volume published the field work of 1885-86, including the first classification of North American Indian languages. (see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Langs_N.Amer.png for a current language map)

Alvin picked up their work, and began Indian Heritage with detailed maps and accompanying “updated” classification tables of language groups (Powell had grouped them into 56 linguistic families).  “The study of Indian languages,” Alvin said, “can be extremely valuable in the knowledge it provides of the backgrounds and historic origins, movements, and cultural developments of individual tribes and bands.” This, in a time before DNA analysis, was a remarkable way of marrying biology and history.

The number of languages—Alvin quotes one source suggesting over 2200 mutually unintelligible pre-Columbian languages in the Americas—was fuel in the debate over the length of habitation and the number of migrations from Asia. Some have proposed three major migrations related to three language parent stocks, but as far as I can tell, this is still an open field. Estimates on times of migration vary greatly as well, but increasingly, the first are thought to have been more than 30,000 years ago.

Language, for similar reasons, also enters into the argument between “long counters” and “short counters” as regards pre-contact populations (languages have “half-lives,” and linguists estimate the time it takes for languages to grow and change). According to Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the gap on this score was huge: short counters arguing that there were probably fewer than 10 million people on the continents when Columbus hit shore; long counters suggested as many as 112 million.  In 1968, Josephy thought some high middle number the best current estimate; in a radio interview 30 years later he upped his numbers to 90 million or more.

And here we come to cataclysmic events—diseases, it is agreed, decimated huge numbers of indigenous Americans, often before the affected Indians saw a European. Slavery and violence took huge tolls on Indian populations as well—some Caribbean peoples were exterminated in Columbus’s quest for gold.

1492 was a signal year in the history of the planet, and the movement of its peoples and languages. Not too far on either side of that date were major disease epidemics in Europe—and climate change.  The Great Warming brought the Norse to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and multiplied Europe’s population; warming and drought killed civilizations and thousands of people in Africa and the Americas. The plague, poxes, typhus and a myriad of diseases hit and killed millions in Europe before they were brought to the Americas. Mann says that a world population of 500 million at the beginning of the sixteenth century might have been reduced by one-fifth by the early seventeenth century. Maybe the greatest die-off in human history!

History is full of such catastrophes. In recent memory, WW II and its fallout killed millions, created other millions of “stateless” people, and scattered refugees around the globe. The Little Ice Age and accompanying droughts and freezes sent Europeans to the New World; slavery sent Africans in all directions; the Inquisition scattered European Jews; the Potato Famine scattered the Irish. In all cases languages traveled, collided, morphed, and joined as well.

We might now be in the middle of something as significant as any of the above. The pretty plans of the WW I victors for nation states cooperating on oil and speaking English as a strong second language are fast disintegrating in the Middle East. The European Union is being stretched by African and Middle Eastern refugees as some of its members and member citizens cling to cultural and religious identities. Refugee camps bulge—old ones dating to the 1947 Palestinian War; new ones in Turkey, Jordan, and Africa.

And language is again a measure of movements and adjustments. There is little talk now of English as “the world language,” and Spanglish and Arab hip-hop are in the media. As Syrians, speaking in English to reporters, describe hopes of learning German, one is reminded of an older Middle Eastern dispersion, described in Genesis:

“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Syrian refugees LA Times

Other Powells and Josephys will trace these movements 500 years from now.

# # #

Disease, religion, and the “here and now”

Smallpox didn’t rate a line in the ‘Western Civilization textbook that I used in 1961—The Course of Civilization, by Strayer, Gatzke, and Harison.  In fact, the Plague, or Black Death, which some now think wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth century, gets less than a page. Ironically, the disease is credited with preceding and influencing “bloody peasant rebellions…, senseless civil wars,” and “the witchcraft delusion,” in which “innocent men and women were falsely accused of practicing black magic.”
Prior to Alfred Crosby’s linking biology to traditional history, I guess that was par for the course: history was wars and politics; disease was for the biologists and epidemiologists to discover and discuss, and poets to mourn. Mention was brief and, like the Salem Witch Trials, a sideshow left to novelists and preachers to explore.
Even without the plague, life in medieval Europe—for the more than 80 percent who were peasant farmers—was always precarious. If the child made it past the first year or two, self-immunizing against common diseases in the process, life expectancy might be 30 or 40 years. Accidents and infections were rampant.  A year or three of drought or heavy rains brought hunger and sometimes starvation. And the wealthy classes—e.g., nobles and churchmen—fought and enlisted the peasantry to fight—and die—for them.
As the Little Ice Age—roughly 1400-1850—tightened its grip on the old world, thousands ran or were shipped to the new world as indentured servants. Over half of the Europeans who came to North America between 1600 and 1776 came that way. And by 1600, more than half of the indigenous people in North America had already been slain by smallpox, measles, and other maladies mostly sent ahead by Europe’s advance guard of explorers and fishermen. Eurocentric thinking—which saw European tools and religious beliefs as superior to anything “discovered” in America, quickly covered over 30,000 years or more of complex civilizations and histories as white Europeans marched across the continent.
We don’t’ know what life expectancies were among Indian tribes—though it surely varied greatly from tribe to tribe and even continent to continent. And the Little Ice Age and the Great Warming that preceded it took their tolls on the populations in the Americas before European arrival. In the Great Warming, Brian Fagin accounts for huge population losses on the California coast, in the desert southwest, and among the Mayans and pre-Incans. In other words, life for indigenous Americans before the European arrival was precarious too.
Among small and dispersed tribes in areas of great natural resources, as in what is now the Pacific Northwest, it might have been easier to cope with weather and disease before the Europeans. But we know now that these diseases crept in—from the sea, with horse-mounted Indians, with the fur trade—well ahead of the Europeans who carried them. With horses and guns and metal pots came smallpox, measles—and missionaries.
This week’s “aha” moment came when it occurred to me that the Indians and the early white settlers held very similar religious views—or at least “goals” for their religious practices and beliefs. With life expectancy short and a world full of hazards, what religion offered was a bit of power and some solace in dealing with it! Lewis and Clark doctored—and they had guns. The four Indians who went back to St. Lewis to find Clark were looking for some of the white religion’s power. Father Desmet and his Catholic troops among the Flathead wedged their way in with ceremony and similarities—weyakin/angels; baptism/sweat lodge; chapel/long house. But when the Indians were asked to give up their own rather than supplement it with the new, they chased the Catholics off.
And of course white doctor Whitman’s ineffectiveness in dealing with measles led to his Indian death sentence.
There might have been pious Christians who carried real visions of an eternal hereafter, and Indians I’m sure felt that spirits continued after death. How long and in what form seems less vivid. I surmise spiritual presences who might be leaned on with all other religious tools—weyakins, dances and ceremonies—in dealing with the day to day struggles of life. My guess is that for most white settlers looking at high infant death losses and 40 years as old, religion was just such a tool. You did what you could to build a future for offspring—and to acquire goods to enjoy now. And baptized and genuflected and prayed for help. And, Indian or white, if you were a man (yes, my guess is that gender roles on the American frontier were firm and exceptions rare) you might pursue fame, which Indian oral tradition and white books told you did endure.
# # #