A publisher recently sent me a free book, hoping that I would adopt it in my future classes. The idea was that I would force this book down the throats of hundreds of students, each of whom would be forced to purchase the overpriced book.
It's a good scheme, and it works more often than not, but this time there were a couple of flaws. First, I've retired, and won't be forcing students to buy any books (but publishers, feel free to keep sending me free books). Second, the book was pure shit (And old rehashed shit, at that).
There are hundreds of bad books extolling the simplistic theory about Native Americans who lived in perfect harmony with nature (as if they'd been simple children in a Garden of Eden until corrupted by the evil influences of the European invaders). As a theory, this has died out everywhere except on television and in social media.
The only problem is that, even though every historian in the country knows better, books pushing the same old nonsense continue to be written, published, and sold. There are a host of similar widely held, but preposterous similar subjects: People in Central America couldn’t have come up with the concept of building pyramids, so there must have been some contact with Egypt that taught them how to build such complicated structures. In the seventies, there was a prolific author—who damn sure doesn’t need any more publicity from me—who got rich peddling a series of books promoting foolishness about how ancient aliens were responsible for all the new world civilizations. Such ideas are nonsense at best (and more likely, racist).
Perhaps we should sit quietly in a corner for a few minutes, in deep introspection and try to figure out why we find these absurd theories so attractive and comforting?
Did Native Americans live in harmony with nature? (You know, kind of like Iron Eyes Cody in the classic Keep America Beautiful public service announcement where, after watching people littering along the highway, has a single tear form in his stoic Native American face? Well, probably not exactly like him, since he was actually Italian and just looked Native American.) The idea of Indians living in harmony with nature just never seems to die.
Native Americans exploited their environment to the limits of their technological abilities. It wasn’t Europeans who hunted woolly mammoths to extinction. And if you need more proof, look at ‘Head-Smashed-In-Site’ in Alberta, Canada. The Native Americans put up stone markers along a trail for over five miles so they would remember the trail they used to stampede herds of buffalo off a cliff. Far more animals were killed than were butchered—and the site was used for seven thousand years. Survival was tough, and Native Americans would have hunted with flame throwers if they could have—and so would you after you skipped about three meals.
Perhaps the best example of an educated scholar refusing to quite literally read the handwriting on the wall is Giles Healey discovering the Bonampak Murals. Healey was an anthropologist from Yale, who spent years living and working in Central and South America. Early in his career, he spent two years collecting curare from South American jungles so that the deadly poison could be studied and used in medicine. During World War II, Healey and his wife moved to Mexico and began searching for new Mayan sites.
It is amazing how much we have learned about the Mayans in the last few decades. Sites have been located, their written language has been decoded, and thousands of archaeological sites have been located. When Healey first began his work, however, the established belief was that the Maya were peaceful astronomers, poets, and time keepers living in a Utopian world.
The truth, of course, is that the Maya were ruthless, violent people who sacrificed their victims in the most horrific ways imaginable. There is not enough room here for a history lecture, but suffice it to say that the Maya were obsessed with blood. If they could not use blood from victims captured in battle, the Maya used their own blood. Even their royalty were not exempt: Mayan kings pierced their genitals and passed ropes of woven thorns through the punctures to produce blood as an offering to the gods.
Note. This always makes me think of the same two thoughts. (Well, three, if you count “Ouch!”) First, this kind of religious belief makes it easy to understand why the Maya converted to Christianity so readily. A god who died on the cross made perfect sense to them. Second, if our modern day political leaders were required to do a little genital bloodletting, it might thin out the herd of power-hungry plutocrats a little.
Healey was producing a film about the peaceful Maya when he was led to a previously unknown site, the Bonampak temple. Inside the temple, the walls contained the magnificent murals that completely rewrote our understanding of the Maya. The murals covered the walls of three rooms of the temple, and clearly showed the history of a battle, as well as the torture of captured enemies.
Yes, they do show torture...And the Titanic was a rather large boat. Neither sentence does the subject justice. The murals are absolutely horrific: A quick example would be the drawings showing the Maya ripping out fingernails, leaving blood spurting from the fingers of the captives. As wall art, only the Assyrians painted anything close to this kind of horror.
But when Giles Healey saw the paintings, he searched the murals, looking for the bucket of red paint that the Maya had dipped their fingers into. He never found the bucket, and since the facts did not support his conclusions….he ignored them. When he produced his movie, Maya Through the Ages, he did not include a single reference to Bonampak, instead showing the Maya as mystics who lived in total harmony with nature, who spent their time studying the heavens and perfecting their calendar.
Healey cleaned the accumulated dirt of centuries off the murals, photographed them and published his work, but he could not accept the truth that the murals plainly stated. (Nor was he alone, as the book I just finished reading proves).
No matter how often we repeat the truth, there will always be a market for the books and movies that tell the more comfortable lies. More often than not, written history tells us what we need to (and want to) hear. In doing so, it often tells us more about who we are now, than what happened then.