Rediscovering the Americas:

Exploring the Americas Before Columbus

David Wade Chambers
19 min readSep 2, 2019



For five hundred years Europeans and their descendants have told a mythic story of the ‘discovery’, ‘settlement’ and ‘founding’ of a New World in the Americas, a world originally inhabited, according to these myths, by primitive and often quite savage tribes living in a pristine wilderness. Recent thinking in many academic disciplines now suggests that the civilizations encountered by Europeans in 1492 were neither “new”, nor were they primitive, nor were they situated in pristine or unowned and unmanaged landscapes. In point of fact, pre-Columbian societies and technologies were sophisticated and highly adapted to their environment, including those whose culture retained some dimensions of the over-used and serially abused term “hunter-gatherer”.

How did these almost entirely false stories or myths come to prevail in the European mind, influencing human interaction, social policy, and sometimes even scholarly research and analysis.


European Comments on America’s Primitive Savages

  • “This people goeth all naked … and they ete also one another. The man eteth his wyfe, his chylderne as we also have seen. Anon, 1522
  • “Those little men whom you will scarcely find traces of humanity; who not only lack culture, but . . . keep no records . . . have no written laws but only barbarous institutions and customs.” Sepulveda, 1550
  • “Sprung up like vermine of an earthy slime” Christopher Brooke, 1622
  • “So bad a people, having little of humanitie but shape, ignorant of Civilitie, of Arts, of Religion; more brutish than the beasts they hunt, more wild and unmanly than that unmanned wild countrey which they range rather than inhabite.” Hakluyte, 1625
  • “what could they [the Pilgrims] see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men — and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.” William Bradford, 1647
  • “[The savage] wages war — systematic war — upon beings incapable of resistance, upon women and children, whom all other races in the world, no matter how barbarous, consent to spare. R.M. Bird, 1837

How did it happen that the European world came to see Native Americans in such destructive ways, based on stereotypical images (in words and pictures) perpetrated by the Europeans who arrived first to explore, then to conquer, then to settle? An interesting examination of these issues is provided by Robert Berkhofer in his classic study, The White Man’s Indian. He shows how the idea of the Indian became a White image of Native American otherness, coloring the realities of native culture and behavior and imposing the “intermediation of ideological preconception” on any attempt at mutual understanding.

Exhibit 1.1

Theodor Galle after Jan van der Straet, The Discovery of America, from New Discoveries, detail, c. 1580 / 1590, Engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection.

The native woman is naked on a hammock armed with a primitive club. In the distance a human arm roasts on an open fire. The European is elegantly, if unsuitably, clothed for Caribbean beachwear, He carries an astrolabe symbolizing his scientific knowledge and an heraldic standard, a sign of high rank. Three imaginary wild animals roam. There were certainly no horses in the Americas in 1492.

Exhibit 1.2

The first known depiction of cannibalism in the New World. Engraving by Johann Froschauer for an edition of Amerigo Vespucci’s Mundus Novus, published in Augsburg in 1505.

The original German account after an appreciation of native beauty has scarcely a single word of truth: “The people are thus naked, handsome, brown, well shaped in body, their heads, necks, arms, private parts, feet of men and women are a little covered in feathers. The men also have many precious stones in their faces and breasts. No one also has anything, but all things are in common. And the men have as wives those who please them, be they mothers, sisters, or friends, therein they make no distinction. They also fight with each other. They also eat each other, even those who are slain, and hang the flesh of them in the smoke. They become one hundred and thirty years old. And have no government.”

The details of the myth of the primitive Indian are multi-fold and often contradictory. For example, Berkhofer describes how antithetical notions of good (or noble) indian and bad (or ignoble) indian came into being very early in this cultural encounter. But whether pictured as barbaric Savage or as Noble Savage, the Indian always remained “savage”.

Exhibit 1.3

Horace Greenough, The Rescue, 1837–1850, White Marble, U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C. (now in storage)

Greenough wrote that The Rescue was meant “to convey the idea of the triumph of the whites over the savage tribes” .

Consider the lithograph below, based on Greenough’s sculpture. It was created forty years later and nearly four hundred years after the stereotype itself was first perpetrated by Europeans. Notice how the gigantic unarmed figure of the European seemingly controls the child-like Native mainly with his eyes, niftily tucking the Native’s long left arm under his own; meanwhile the European’s awkwardly extended right arm grasps with fingertips the wrist of the hand holding the tomahawk.

In some ways the most remarkable aspect of this image is how it’s specific content reverses the historical reality, in which Native families were the ones being routinely taken from their homes and slaughtered. In any case, even in 1492, the only ‘naked’ indians were likely those encountered in warmer climes.

Exhibit 1.4

H. Schile “Daniel Boone protects his family” 1874, lithograph Library of Congress

Today, the average person would probably recognize that these depictions are a little one-sided, yet, there is evidence that White sentiment in the 21st century would still believe that the images convey a deep seated truth about the pioneer experience in the settling of the continent. After all, white people were also massacred, families were abducted, settlements were burned. Can we find in these events evidence of “moral and racial superiority” on one side or the other?

It is important to understand the historical context of this violence that occurred on ‘the frontier’, those areas where Indian land had not yet been entirely secured by the invading Europeans. Let’s look at just one example. In the 1770s, one such place was Kentucky. This was, of course, the decade ofthe American Revolutionary War, a time when the interests of the British government and the British colonists were increasingly divided. To simplify the story, we can name the principal contenders for this geographic region: the Shawnee from the north, the Cherokee from the south, and the British from the east.

The strategy of the British had been to bargain with the Mohawk Six Nations, who claimed rights to this territory by virtue of their previous conquest of the Shawnee. These negotiations resulted in the 1768 treaty of Fort Stanwix which allowed white settlement of the land in question in exchange for 10,000 pounds sterling. Significantly, the Indian signatories to this treaty did NOT include the Cherokee or the Shawnee.

When war broke out between the colonists and the British government, power balances among the various participants began to alter. Violence between Native Americans and white settlers in Kentucky was on the increase. Not surprisingly, Indians raids and kidnappings were not uncommon. These were encouraged by the French and, during and after the Revolutionary War, by the British from their strongholds in the north. Indian tactics greatly slowed the rate of settlement of the territory until the middle 1780's. The Cherokee, led by Dragging Canoe, frequently attacked isolated settlers and hunters, convincing many to abandon Kentucky.

In the late spring of 1776, fewer than 200 colonists remained in Kentucky, primarily at three fortified settlements, including Boonesborough. On July 14, 1776, a Cherokee and Shawnee raiding expedition captured three teenage girls, including Jemima, the daughter of Daniel Boone, as they were floating in a canoe on the Kentucky River.

Daniel Boone quickly organized a rescue team. The third morning, as the Indians were building a fire for breakfast, the rescue party arrived. Two of the Native American men were wounded and later died. The Indians retreated, leaving the girls to be taken home by the settlers.

The episode served to put the settlers in the Kentucky wilderness on guard and discouraged their going much beyond the fort. Although the rescuers had feared the girls would be raped or otherwise abused, Jemima Boone said, “The Indians were kind to us.”

The story told here is only an abbreviated version of a complex historical reality depicted by readily available scholarly studies. These research studies have been summarized in several Wikipedia entries with extensive citations. But it is enough for us to see how these events might seem to justify the colonists’ view that the Indians were treacherous (they didn’t honor the Treaty of 1768), barbaric (they attacked and abducted young girls) and warlike (after one hundred years they were still fighting for their lands), Finally, the Jemima Boone account seems to give credence to Greenough’s sculpture which was created about 60 years after the events in Kentucky.

On the other hand, the Native Americans might have reason to tell this same story in a rather different way. They were conducting an entirely reasonable strategic last ditch battle to save their homelands. They did not harm the girls but treated them kindly. No one died in this incident except two Native Americans. Indeed, in general, there had been a low level of fatalities in these Native resistance actions.

As for the Greenough sculpture, we must remember that at the very moment that it was being carved in white marble in Washington, the US government, in a final act of ethnic cleansing, was forcibly marching the Cherokee 2,000 miles from their homes which were then burned and plundered. This government action, authorized under the Indian Removal Act, was lead by the seventh US President Andrew Jackson, nicknamed “Indian Killer”

The farms, which had belonged to Cherokee families for generations, were redistributed without compensation in a lottery to white settlers. Four thousand Cherokee, principally the most vulnerable (women, children and the elderly) died on this Trail of Tears. During the nineteenth century, tribal removals were quite common as a way of dealing with settled and peaceful tribes.

Shortly after the Greenough sculpture was erected in Washington, yet another image was produced to commemorate the Jemima Boone abduction. Twenty years after the Trail of Tears, the ‘white man’s Indian’ was seen as still “on the warpath” abducting women.

Exhibit 1.5

The Abduction of Daniel Boone’s Daughter by the Indians by Charles Wimar (1853) Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

“Kidnappings” were not uncommon even before Europeans arrived. If you want to see the Native viewpoint on this issue, which is more complex than you might imagine, don’t fail to check out

Exhibit 1.6

‘The Death of Jane McCrea’ painted by John Vanderlyn in 1804 and the memoir of Mary Robinson over a century before, both “true” accounts of violence in the native wars, were part of an artistic and literary genre that became known as ‘captivity novels’.

If these images of the abuse of women by naked savages seem familiar, it is because such pictures were not only widely distributed, but they also inspired other pictures, movies, novels, and even poetry in a similar vein. A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) went through 4 editions in its first year, and now over 300 years later has a couple of dozen YouTube videos, including a number by university lecturers, mostly extolling the virtues of her prose as well as the insight into the 17th century which her narrative provides.

Hollywood then reinvented the genre recycling the same well told stories several hundred times. From The Call of the Wild to Apocalypto, we see endless White fabrications of a history that never happened, at least not at all in the way pictured.

You may want to watch this movie clip below, if you wish to see a satisfying number of Europeans being roasted alive, or having their throats slashed or getting knocked off cliffs. Production values are all very high. Oh, and BTW, a few Indians die as well.

This film is certainly a shade better than the average Hollywood treatment of Native American and European interaction. Thankfully, Director Michael Mann dumped much of the author James Finemore Cooper’s plot, and he cast several natives in lead roles. Wes Studi (Cherokee), for instance, is brilliant playing a Huron.But I include it here because it shows the power of the stereotype of the naked savage, even in our own times.

With a few exceptions, captivity narratives tell us far more about the captives (and presumed captives) than about the Native Americans who kidnapped them, or the tribes that cared for them. The natives’ motives and feelings, the tribe’s knowledge system and values, remain essentially a blank page to the women who find themselves in this unfortunate situation. For Gary Ebersole (Captured by Texts, 1995) these narratives (of which he apparently read hundreds) have “served as discursive sites for the meaning-making activities of diverse communities”.

Another scholar Martha Finch agrees, saying “Euro- Americans have made sense of the historical reality of Indian captivity by investing it with changing religious and moral values — investments that finally reveal more about the shifting enculturated attitudes of the authors and readers of the texts than they do about the facts of abduction and the very real experiences of Native Americans”.

From a Native American perspective these narratives not only perpetuate painful stereotypes that display little or nothing of the Native point of view, but also serve as a sensational call to arms, a call that was almost always answered by retribution on an exponential scale. Ebersole, who is a historian of religions, focuses on themes that explicate deeper levels of spiritual meaning, in this regard he assures us that Rowlandson’s experiences were “never not already implicated in a complex intertextuality and symbolic world of meaning.” In other words, do not look for unvarnished truths!

Nakedness and Sexual Promiscuity

Museums throughout the Americas and across Europe have storerooms cluttered with abundant examples of elegant and often modest clothing of traditional types worn by native peoples before and after the arrival of Europeans. Of course, some tribes wore more clothing and some less. Certainly, those Caribbean tribes first encountered by Europeans might understandably have been seen to be naked or nearly so, just as might be the case today in warm climates especially in communities near the sea.

But the real point here is the clear sexual innuendo of the Europeans’ shocked response at the representations of naked natives flooding into their libraries. These self-righteous travelers, one might suggest, were simply in the throes of what we now call “culture shock”. As for the Puritans of New England, who assumed Natives American were ‘of the devil’ and working on his behalf, it is clear from their writings that their moral arrogance was nothing more than religious bigotry of the worst sort.

“In most tribes, Native American men wore breechclouts or breechcloths (a long rectangular piece of hide or cloth tucked over a belt, so that the flaps fell down in front and behind), sometimes with leather leggings attached in colder climates. Here’s a page of breechcloth and legging pictures. In some tribes Indian clothing for men was a short kilt or fur trousers instead of a breechcloth. Most American Indian men did not use shirts, but Plains Indian warriors did wear special buckskin war shirts decorated with ermine tails, hair, and intricate quillwork and beadwork. Here are pictures of two traditional Sioux war shirts. Native American clothing for women usually consisted of skirts and leggings, though the length, design, and material of the skirts varied from tribe to tribe. In some cultures, Indian women’s shirts were optional and were treated more like coats. In others, Native American women always wore tunics or mantles in public. And in some tribes women usually wore one-piece American Indian dresses instead, like this Cheyenne buckskin dress. Nearly all Native Americans had some form of moccasin (a sturdy leather shoe) or mukluk (heavier boot), with the styles of footwear differing from tribe to tribe (as you can see from these mocasin pictures). Most tribes used cloaks in colder weather, but some of the northern tribes wore Inuit-style fur parkas instead. Most variable of all were headgear and formal clothing, which were different in nearly every tribe. Here’s a page illustrating traditional hairstyles from several different tribes.”

From the Native Languages of the Americas Website.

Primitive Weapons and Tools

Other parts of the course deal with this issue, treating the remarkable array of native weapons and tools as examples of ‘appropriate technologies’ rather than as ‘primitive technologies’. Keoke and Porterfield list many examples of native tools which were certainly not confined to stone and wood materials, often utilizing metals which the prevailing myths suggested that Natives had no knowledge of, listing, for example, axes, adzes, awls, chisels, drill bits, fish hooks, gouges, needles, pins, pulleys, saws, scales, scalpels, shovels, and wrenches. Furthermore, the natives in all parts of the Americas showed themselves, much to the Europeans’ surprise, as adept at making use of unfamiliar European tools and devices, which they saw in use or which were left behind in abandoned settlements. (Chaplin, 71–74)

In later sections of the book the question of native weapons, tools, and technology, in general, will be discussed in detail. Suffice it to say that phrases like “stone age indians” are simply inaccurate. Some tribes were skilled metallurgists, and had been for millennia. And a wide range of sophisticated tools were in use when the Europeans arrived. Incidentally, on the subject of stone, it is true that the quality of the masonry of the Inca could be said to excel that of Europeans of the time.


The Spanish assigned the name ‘canibales’ to a caribbean tribe that they believed were given to eating human flesh. This is a vexed question on which researchers do not agree. Scholarly opinions range from the position that “Cannibalism was widespread in the past among humans in many parts of the world” to the suggestion that “there is doubt that cannibalism as a ritual practice exists at all — or ever existed in human history.” (Wikipedia disputed entry)

Whatever may be said about the Caribs, and the Caribs themselves strongly deny that this practice ever existed, it is quite certain that among Native American tribes, in general, eating human flesh has never been documented even as a common ceremonial practice and the idea is strongly rejected. It is highly unlikely that more than a handful, if any, of the hundreds of Native American tribes engaged in culturally sanctioned cannibalism at the time of European contact.

“Cruel and merciless in constant warfare”

There is no evidence, historical or archeological, to suggest that Native Americans were either more or less bellicose than any other people in the world. Most scholars believe that some native tribes had been quite peaceable and others more warlike. If Native Americans engaged in warfare whenever Europeans attempted to take away their homelands perhaps that is not really, in itself, evidence that under normal circumstances these nations can be characterized as “warlike”. And as European depredation and destruction of native homelands proceeded apace, tribes were forced onto other tribes’ territories, which created the conditions for aggressive interaction among the tribes.

On the other hand, the widely believed proposition that Native Peoples were constantly at war in pre-Columbian times is simply unproven and thought by most scholars to be unlikely since there is far more evidence of productive trade routes that spread across both continents. However, recently, several academics have given new life to the idea that Native Americans were indeed highly warlike. Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley, (War Before Civilization, 1996) and archaeologist Steven LeBlanc (Constant Battles, 2003) argued against what they both called “The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage” “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash” in the pre-Colombian World, according to Keeley.

It is still the custom in popular culture to refer to any vintage photo of a young native male as a ‘warrior’. The great photographer Edwin Curtis paid native men of all ages to pose as ‘warriors’, indeed today his work seems preoccupied with lonely, now defeated, ‘warriors’ and with hostile ‘war parties’ at a time when no such war parties existed. There is even a plant (Pedicularis densiflora) named Indian Warrior. In a 2007 HBO drama Chief Sitting Bull is told by a U.S. Army officer that "You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent."

No one doubts that inter-tribal warfare occurred before Whites “stepped foot on this continent” in the gentle phrase of the HBO army officer. Certainly archaeologists have found skeletons with projectile points embedded in them and other marks of violence; and it has been suggested that war may have surged during periods of drought. But to suggest that Native Americans were war mongering savages is utterly to misunderstand their social achievements and rich cultural heritage. Lest any reader be under the impression that Native Americans were more inclined to war than their European counterparts, there follows a list of wars in Europe in the century before their full scale invasion of the Americas

European Wars of the 15th century

Now we must deal with the suggestion that Native Americans were particularly cruel and merciless in their manner of waging war. In this regard, much is made of the native practice of scalping which is considered especially barbaric. According to historian James Axtell: “Scalps were not mere trophies or booty of war . . . The whorl of hair on the crown and especially male scalp locks, braided and decorated with jewelry, paint, and feathers, represented the person’s ‘soul’ or living spirit.”

English settlers adopted the practice as a retaliatory measure, Axtell says, and then added a new twist by offering bounties to their Indian allies for scalps taken from hostile tribes. For example, the English in Connecticut paid the Mohegans for the scalps of Pequots. More to the point, far more cruelly than any act of Indian violence, the British in Boston put a bounty on the scalps of the Penobscot, though for children under twelve they only offered twenty pounds.

In the history of world warfare Native Americans probably don’t rank anywhere near the most cruel or savage. Nevertheless, as late as 1775 in that glorious document of American liberty, The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson referred to Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”. There is every reason to believe that Jefferson was well aware that this statement was a lie.

Taking the entire head of an enemy is not significantly less barbaric than taking only the scalp. Considering the extensive and frequent acts of genocide committed upon Native American tribes, there is a certain irony in the European perpetrators calling their victims cruel and unmerciful.

Indolent and Improvident

There a several ways to understand the “myth of the lazy (often drunken) Indian”. One might ask, what does one expect when an entire continent of people is subjected to disease and violence; diseases which take around 90% of the native population within a short period after the European invasion? What does one expect when their religions and cultures, their ways-of-life and homelands are attacked on all fronts for centuries? Perhaps the most serious factor was the loss of the traditional economy which had kept millions of people healthy, strong, and productive for some thousands of years.

Alternatively, the picture may simply depict a group of people celebrating the liberation of their homeland.

But instead of dwelling on the very real psychological effects of such social and cultural deprivation, scholars have begun to look directly at the issues of how and why Natives have not found easy access to the new economies that were imposed on their societies. Canadian scholar John Lutz, in his study of British Columbia has been particularly effective in showing the political and economic forces at work in the tribal context.

Certainly in B.C., as in many other parts of the Americas, First Nations people, were able and willing, often eager, to participate in any new economic opportunities presented to them. Instead of being excluded from the new economy, Lutz shows how in the early days they worked in trading posts canneries, farms and coal mines; they were packers, sealers, road and railway builders, hop pickers, sawmill workers and loggers, deckhands on river steamers, domestics and longshoremen

Lutz concludes that Natives eventually fell into the ‘poverty trap’ for specific, if complex, reasons, and due to a half century of both deliberate and inadvertent policy decisions. One need not resort to racist suggestions of innate laziness. Nevertheless, the ‘lazy’ stereotype is one of the earliest. Remember the Gallery image 1.1 with the Native resting in the hammock showing that the traditional economy provided leisure time in which things like hammocks could be invented. While this interesting discussion is beyond the scope of a course on PreColumbian history, the tired myth of the inherently indolent Native should be ‘put to bed’ at last.

The remaining characteristics of the ‘ignoble
savage’ (Fearful, superstitious, savage and uncivilized, Devoid of Art, Technology, Religion or Government; untouched and pristine environments) will all be dealt with in later chapters of this book. But before leaving the subject for the moment, we must consider one of the most shocking misapprehensions that is characteristic of all the many Native American stereotypes that we have been considering: the idea that all North and South American tribes had similar lifestyles and customs and that tribal knowledge and culture were unchanging and thus could be described in these simplistic ways. “Indian” stereotypes bring all these silly, yet profoundly debilitating, notions into one great mish-mash of culture. If you can find an apparent example, somewhere on the two continents and at some time during the last two millennia, then the stereotype must be “true”. Not!!!

Sophistication in the “Old World” and the “New World”

For five hundred years we have been led to believe the fiction that one of the planet’s hemispheres was in some sense older than the other. Clearly such a notion is ludicrous from a geographic or geological point of view, even in a world of drifting continents and colliding plates. But is it any less absurd from the standpoint of the cultures and civilizations that have inhabited these two worlds, old and new? Which world was first settled by human beings? Which hemispheres had the first cities and advanced societies?

No matter what one may believe about whether the Americas were settled before or after Europe, many of the long held European assumptions about the lack of social, cultural and intellectual advancement in pre-colonial Americas are clearly false. This means that we must re-examine and reappraise all of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from. These stories will include those passed down among the peoples who have lived in these lands as well as those told to us by professional historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.

The contrasts, assumptions and apparent facts that until recently characterized the history of Pre-Columbian Americas were written largely from a Euro-centric perspective. Such a perspective takes it for granted that all that is ‘civilized’ and ‘sophisticated’ had its origins in Europe. This course aims to open up the whole field of what the Americas were like before the arrival of Columbus and to reframe the relationship between Europe and the Americas as an encounter between civilizations, between two sophisticated spheres of cultural, institutional and historical development.

Synonyms for the word “sophistication” include: experience, urbanity, culture, civilization, polish, refinement; elegance, style, poise, finesse, savoir faire.

Antonyms (or the opposite) of sophistication include: crude, simple, rough, rough and ready, basic, rudimentary, unrefined, rude, makeshift. One major theme of this book is to exemplify, with many specific illustrations, the relative sophistication of Native American cultures in the years before the European invasion.



David Wade Chambers

Words and Pictures. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Not far off 86 and heading for Nirvana. (Too shabby for Heaven but not wicked enough for Hell.)