When Worlds Collide
Chapter 1: The Missing Branch of the Family Tree
For people who have ancestors from Europe and the Americas, the story of the European side of the family tree before contact has long been known. But it has taken far longer for the true story of the peoples of the New World before contact to become accepted in popular culture.
Great New World Cultures
According to the conventional narrative of the last five hundred years, before Columbus arrived the Americas were filled with primitive peoples who were easily conquered by a vastly superior European culture. Although scholars have long known that pre-Columbian America was home to some of the greatest cultures of the age, only recently has the general public's view of the New World started to change.
We now know that, at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Inca empire in South America was far larger than any in Europe, stretching 2,400 miles from modern day Colombia to Chile. Their 10,000-mile network of stone roads snaked through jungles and over mountain passes, all leading back to their capital, Cuzco, in present day Peru. Capable of great feats of engineering, the Incas created their cities, including their spiritual retreat Machu Picchu, with a standard of precision that far exceeded the abilities of European artisans at the time. The Indians who built these great South American metropolises still live and thrive in Peru today.
--Carlos Paz Sanchez, director, Peruvian Cultural Center, Cuzco
and the Mexica, leaders of the Triple Alliance once called the Aztecs. The Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan was home to 200,000 people and cleaner than any city in Europe.
Other civilizations lived farther north, including the Pueblo tribes with their planned communities built around one of the most sophisticated social structures in the world, and the cultures of the Mississippi River valley, who were among the most successful and productive farmers on earth.
New World Advances
The New World cultures were neither better nor worse than the cultures of Europe, but simply different. One difference was that the greatest advances of New World cultures did not involve inventing new machines but were instead driven by the effective use and management of the natural environment.
New World inventors, for example, made a major advance in one of the most important industries of the age, textile manufacturing, by growing and harvesting cochineal, an insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus, to mass-produce a true red dye. In Europe, where true red dye was so rare and expensive that only the rich and powerful wore red, this New World dye would rank only behind gold and silver in value.
See how New World inventors created a red dye that made Europeans swoon.
The talent of the New World peoples also made possible a vastly more important set of inventions: new kinds of food. In one of the great food revolutions in history, Indigenous Americans succeeded through selective breeding in turning a weed called teocintle into maize (or corn), an achievement many botanists consider the most important feat of genetic engineering in human history.
--Amado Leyva, agronomist
When corn was first introduced as a staple crop in the ancient Americas, it made tremendous population growth possible, from the Mayan peninsula all the way to what is today the United States and Canada. The people lived not just on corn but also on other crops like potatoes and tomatoes that they were the first to domesticate.
Based on this diet, some scholars believe that in the 15th century, the average person in the Americas may have been better fed than the average person in Europe. They also might have been healthier—without pigs, goats, and cows, the Americas had no small pox, measles, or similar diseases that people on other continents had caught from those animals.
Some of the interesting points from the rest of the documentary:
Even if their conversions were deemed sincere, Christians with Muslim and Jewish ancestors were treated as inferior to Spaniards who had Christian ancestors. Such were the origins of a policy of social discrimination, a caste-like system, which denied conversos access to important positions in church and state and reserved power for a supposedly pure-blooded Christian elite. Spain would later use similar policies in the Americas to keep native peoples at the bottom of the social scale.
One example involves the now-legendary experience of Juan Diego, an early Indian convert to Catholicism. According to tradition, in the winter of 1531, Diego heard a woman's voice calling him from a hillside overlooking Mexico City. The woman had a serene countenance and was outlined by a luminescent glow. She also had native features, spoke Nahuatl, the pre-Columbian language of the Mexica, and looked very much the way the Mexica depicted Tonantzin, their revered fertility goddess. She told Diego that she was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The woman that Diego encountered in the form of an indigenous goddess came to be called "Our Lady of Guadalupe," the most important Catholic icon in the Americas. As the centuries passed, this story served as a kind of creation story for the Catholic Church in Mexico. But it is also a quintessentially Mestizo story, in which Catholic and native spiritual traditions became so thoroughly fused that it is difficult to tell one where one begins and the other ends.
--Soledad Fortun, expert on Potosi history
When Worlds Collide loses a bit of its power toward the end as the cultures merge and the story gets more convoluted. I might trim or rewrite some of that section. But for the most part, this is a well-written and dramatic account of the clash of civilizations. The information will be new to most people and may provide fresh insights even to those who have studied the history for years.
Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.
For more on Native history, see Why We Believe in Columbus and America Is Ground Zero to Indians. For more PBS documentaries, see Review of For the Generations and Review of The Spirit of Sacajawea.