December 23, 2010

Review of When Worlds Collide

Yet another documentary I watched on PBS for Native American Heritage Month:

When Worlds CollideIn 1492, two worlds that for thousands of years had developed completely independent of one another suddenly came into contact. In the following decades, those two worlds painfully and haltingly began to merge. Below, follow the story of When Worlds Collide; a story that examines power, religion, wealth, and the nature of identity and ethnicity in the Americas right up to our own times.You can read the entire transcript or watch the entire video online. Here's the key first segment:

Chapter 1:  The Missing Branch of the Family TreeAfter news reached Europe in 1493 that Christopher Columbus had reached land west across the Atlantic Ocean, suddenly two worlds came into contact that for thousands of years had developed completely independently of one another. In the following decades, those two worlds painfully and haltingly began to merge, transforming the nature of identity and ethnicity in the Americas and resulting in a vibrant Mestizo culture that lives on to this day.

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.

It would be very ignorant to write the Incas off as just “Indians.” [In Cuzco] we can see the highest expression of a higher culture. It is evidence of how sophisticated their technology was for the time, their engineering, hydraulics and architecture. And it also reveals the relationship the Incas had with nature. They believed in maintaining an equilibrium between man and the earth. . .Man doesn't destroy nature to build something, but rather adapts his architecture to the setting.

--Carlos Paz Sanchez, director, Peruvian Cultural Center, Cuzco

In central Mexico, major civilizations had flourished since the time of the Romans. Later came the Mayas with their advanced mathematics and writing,

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.

First of all, corn is a human invention. It is a creation of man. Ten thousand years ago, corn did not exist. . . Together with the early Americans, it built cities, it built cultures.

--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.
More interesting points

Some of the interesting points from the rest of the documentary:
  • Isabella and Ferdinand took another momentous step in 1492 in pursuit of religious unity: they ordered the Jews of Spain, some of whose ancestors had lived there for more than 700 years, to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Many of the Jews who converted and stayed in Spain, known as "conversos," were still suspected of being insincere in their conversions and arrested on charges of heresy by officers of the Spanish Inquisition.

    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.

  • In response to Queen Isabella's call to convert the peoples of the Americas, waves of Catholic missionaries flooded the New World, only to find that the people living there already had their own deeply held beliefs. As a result, the New World cultures gradually blended their native beliefs and Catholicism to create new spiritual traditions, images, and symbols.

    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.

  • For the next 300 years, virtually all of the indigenous men in the region would be forced to take turns working in deadly conditions in the mine.

    The historical records reveal that millions may have died while working in the mine. A metaphorical way of thinking about it is that so much silver was mined here that you could build a bridge of silver from Potosi to Spain. And with the skeletons of all the men who died here, you could build a bridge of skeletons back from Spain.

    --Soledad Fortun, expert on Potosi history

  • Comment:  "A policy of social discrimination, a caste-like system, which ... reserved power for a supposedly pure-blooded Christian elite." Not coincidentally, this is exactly why we're hearing so many protests against healthcare reform, welfare spending, illegal immigration, gay marriage, mosques, etc. Again, they're attempts to reserve power for a supposedly pure-blooded Christian elite.

    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.

    1 comment:

    dmarks said...

    "Isabella and Ferdinand took another momentous step in 1492 in pursuit of religious unity: they ordered the Jews of Spain, some of whose ancestors had lived there for more than 700 years, to convert to Christianity or leave the country. "

    This sort of thing happened frequently during the Moorish occupation of Spain. Pogroms were common, which included extermination of Jews and appropriation of their property applied to entire cities. (which is the reason the former name of the Ground Zero mosque project, Cordoba, is a cause for concern, since it connotes a period of brutality and genocide and a reign of terror by Muslims in a non-Muslim land).

    Isabela merely applied the policies of the brutal Moorish occupation on a more consistent, national level. Spain was just following the pattern of intolerance and hatred forced onto Spain for hundreds of years efore by the Moors; a nation of very dark character.