This will be our last installment on Zinn as it pertains to the Indians. Let us return one last time to the numbers of how many Indians were in North and Central America when Columbus arrived. For many years, researchers used a number of 100 million. Where did they get this? It appears out of thin air. In the first place, it was arrived at by subtraction, with an assumption that European arrival and exploration killed about 50 million Indians, or that the Europeans either directly or indirectly killed half the Native Americans. A 1999 article in William & Mary Quarterly, for example—which Zinn could have seen if he had looked—cut the total number in half, to 53 million Indians in North America. But even that number has fallen steadily, perhaps by four million a year. In 1976, Henry Dobyns wrote American Historical Demography that put the number of Indians in North America at 40 million; since then, the numbers of estimated people in North America fell to a high of about eight million to as low as one and a half million. Keep in mind that Zinn claimed three million died just in the first 12 years after Columbus’s arrival— a ludicrous claim. Or course, Zinn also claims “The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million” (People’s History, 2003 ed., 16). Again, no evidence or proof. Yet just two pages later (18) we find “”they [the Indians] numbered approximately 75 million people by the time Columbus came, perhaps 25 million in North America (my emphasis).” The Indians must have been amazing at repopulating themselves, given that their numbers rose 15 million in just two pages!
He cites a claim that “perhaps three thousand” Wampanoags lived on Martha’s Vineyard in 1642, but 120 years later only 313 were left. Zinn doesn’t bother to ask how many Indian enemies the Wampanoags had, or if they experienced diseases other than smallpox—virtually the only Euro-specific disease one can point to. Regardless, the numbers vary by as much as 400% depending on which source you use.
More recently, anthropologists looking at a more realistic “carrying capacity” of the land have viewed with skepticism that the Indian populations ever could have exceeded 20 million (including 1 million Aztecs). When one accounts for diseases, another issue arises, namely, what diseases did the Europeans bring? One recent study of 12,500 skeletons found that Indians health was on a “downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.” Tuberculosis, polio, herpes, giardiasis, dysentery, and a variety of tick-borne fevers all killed natives before 1492. Even Dobyns agrees with that conclusion.
There is little attempt by Zinn or his ilk to track the numbers of Indians killed by other Indians. In the case of the Aztecs, little death occurred in battle, as the goal was to capture humans for sacrifice at the altar later. Victor Davis Hanson, in Carnage and Culture, points out that the Aztecs’ weapons were deliberately designed more to stun and capture than to kill (which is one reason they failed so miserably against the Spanish). Once dismissed, now the Spaniards’ early claims of seeing widespread ruins or “great houses” that had been abandoned for years is evidence of this “young disease” hypothesis.
At any rate, Michael Allen and I in the 15th Anniversary Edition of A Patriot’s History of the United States review the literature in a sidebar that takes up almost three full pages (8-11). The scholarly sources that Zinn ignored are all listed there.
After providing bogus numbers on the Indian population in North and Central America, Zinn launches into a romantic and deeply misleading discussion of the “egalitarian” and peaceful Indians. Of course “Marxism” was not even born until Karl Marx hatched it in the 1840s (although to be fair, he stole from Robert Owen and Charles Fourier who had written down concepts of “socialism” in the early 1800s). But that’s still a good 400 years after the Indians Zinn describes. Nevertheless, we find “They perfected the art of agriculture” (as though Africans, Chinese, Muslims, Russians, and of course Europeans didn’t know anything about the “art of agriculture.” Might we recall that during this time, while the Indians were “perfecting” the art of agriculture, Europeans invented the three-field crop system, the plow, the padded horse collar (oh, wait! The Indians had not yet learned how to domesticate animals for farm labor!), and most of all the water wheel. This is just a tad important because neither the Aztecs nor the North American Indians had the wheel in any usable iteration.
Let that sink in: When the Spaniards arrived (having crossed the ocean by developing ship technology that no Indians anywhere had even examined), with lateen sails, overlapping planking, the sextant, maps, written language (which only a few Indian tribes had), and the compass, the Europeans had already left behind technology that Indians were not even close to, including the printing press, harmony, the pipe organ, advanced horse breeding, their own fisheries, animal domestication, and the aforementioned wheel. But gee, the brilliant Indians had (according to Zinn) learned to harvest, husk, and shell various nuts, plants, and vegetables as well as maize (corn). But they had not yet learned of wheat. And the Egyptians had beaten them to beer by about 2,000 years. Zinn has the cajones to conclude that “They ingeniously developed a variety of other vegetables and fruits . . . .” “On their own,” he concludes, “the Indians were engaged in the great agricultural revolution that other peoples in Asia, Europe, Africa were going through at the same time.” Well, “going through?” If Zinn means they were all faced with the human problem of finding, producing, or gathering food, yes. But if he means that they somehow were at the same level as either the Europeans or the Chines, well, no. Not even in the same ball park.
Nevertheless, he continues to tramp through history, oblivious to reality, by saying many of them remained in “egalitarian communes,” other “began to live in more settled communities where there was more food, larger populations, more divisions of labor among men and women, more surplus to feed chiefs and priest, more leisure time for artistic and social work, for building houses (18-19).” Wait, it sounds like Zinn is praising what we would call “capitalism,” or at least the division of labor (Adam Smith style) that allows for economic growth, which in turn is the only way societies can have “more surplus” to engage in building things, arts, entertainment, and so on. Without realizing it, in trying to praise the Indians, he has undercut his own critique of capitalism.
I can only take so much of this. I have to stop before my brain explodes. We’ll pick up with more Zinn next time.