So various were the peoples of the Americas that continent-wide generalizations are risky to the point of folly. Nonetheless, one can say that for the most part the initial Indian-European encounter was less of an intellectual shock to Indians than to Europeans. Indians were surprised when strange-looking people appeared on their shores, but unlike Europeans they were not surprised that such strange people existed.
Many natives, seeking to categorize the newcomers, were open to the possibility that they might belong to the realm of the supernatural. They often approached visitors as if they might be deities, possibly calculating, in the spirit of Pascal’s wager, that the downside of an erroneous attribution of celestial power was minimal. The Taino Indians, Columbus reported after his first voyage, “firmly believed that I, with my ships and men, came from the heavens…. Wherever I went, [they] ran from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, ‘Come! come! and see the men from the heavens!’” On Columbus’s later voyages, his crew happily accepted godhood—until the Taino began empirically testing their divinity by forcing their heads underwater for long periods to see if the Spanish were, as gods should be, immortal.
Motecuhzoma, according to many scholarly texts, believed that Cortés was the god-hero Quetzalcoatl returning home, in fulfillment of a prophecy. What historian Barbara Tuchman called the emperor’s “wooden-headedness, in the special variety of religious mania” is often said to be why he didn’t order his army to wipe out the Spaniards immediately. But the anthropologist Matthew Restall has noted that none of the conquistadors’ writings mention this supposed apotheosis, not even Cortés’s lengthy memos to the Spanish king, which go into detail about every other wonderful thing he did. Instead the Quetzalcoatl story first appears decades later. True, the Mexica apparently did call the Spaniards teteo, a term referring both to gods and to powerful, privileged people. The ambiguity captures the indigenous attitude toward the hairy, oddly dressed strangers on their shores: recognition that their presence was important, plus a willingness to believe that such unusual people might have qualities unlike those of ordinary men and women.
Similarly, groups like the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Haudenosaunee in eastern North America also thought at first that Europeans might have supernatural qualities. But this was because Indians north and south regarded Europeans as human beings exactly like themselves. In their view of the world, certain men and women, given the right circumstances, could wield more-than-human powers. If the Wampanoag and Mexica had shamans who could magically inflict sickness, why couldn’t the British? (The Europeans, who themselves believed that people could become witches and magically spread disease, were hardly going to argue.)
As a rule, Indians were theologically prepared for the existence of Europeans. In Choctaw lore, for example, the Creator breathed life into not one but many primeval pairs of human beings scattered all over the earth. It could not have been terribly surprising to Choctaw thinkers that the descendants of one pair should show up in the territory of another. Similarly, the Zuni took the existence of Spaniards in stride, though not their actions. To the Zuni, whose accounts of their origins and early history are as minutely annotated as those in the Hebrew Bible, all humankind arose from a small band that faded into existence in a small, dark, womb-like lower world. The sun took pity on these bewildered souls, gave them maize to eat, and distributed them across the surface of the earth. The encounter with Europeans was thus a meeting of long-separated cousins.
Contact with Indians caused Europeans considerably more consternation. Columbus went to his grave convinced that he had landed on the shores of Asia, near India. The inhabitants of this previously unseen land were therefore Asians—hence the unfortunate name “Indians.” As his successors discovered that the Americas were not part of Asia, Indians became a dire anthropogonical problem. According to Genesis, all human beings and animals perished in the Flood except those on Noah’s ark, which landed “upon the mountains of Ararat,” thought to be in eastern Turkey. How, then, was it possible for humans and animals to have crossed the immense Pacific? Did the existence of Indians negate the Bible, and Christianity with it?
Among the first to grapple directly with this question was the Jesuit educator José de Acosta, who spent a quarter century in New Spain. Any explanation of Indians’ origins, he wrote in 1590, “cannot contradict Holy Writ, which clearly teaches that all men descend from Adam.” Because Adam had lived in the Middle East, Acosta was “forced” to conclude “that the men of the Indies traveled there from Europe or Asia.” For this to be possible, the Americas and Asia “must join somewhere.”
If this is true, as indeed it appears to me to be,…we would have to say that they crossed not by sailing on the sea, but by walking on land. And they followed this way quite unthinkingly, changing places and lands little by little, with some of them settling in the lands already discovered and others seeking new ones. [Emphasis added]
Acosta’s hypothesis was in basic form widely accepted for centuries. For his successors, in fact, the main task was not to discover whether Indians’ ancestors had walked over from Eurasia, but which Europeans or Asians had done the walking. Enthusiasts proposed a dozen groups as the ancestral stock: Phoenicians, Basques, Chinese, Scythians, Romans, Africans, “Hindoos,” ancient Greeks, ancient Assyrians, ancient Egyptians, the inhabitants of Atlantis, even straying bands of Welsh. But the most widely accepted candidates were the Lost Tribes of Israel.
The story of the Lost Tribes is revealed mainly in the Second Book of Kings of the Old Testament and the apocryphal Second (or Fourth, depending on the type of Bible) Book of Esdras. At that time, according to scripture, the Hebrew tribes had split into two adjacent confederations, the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. After the southern tribes took to behaving sinfully, divine retribution came in the form of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V, who overran Israel and exiled its ten constituent tribes to Mesopotamia (today’s Syria and Iraq). Now repenting of their wickedness, the Bible explains, the tribes resolved to “go to a distant land never yet inhabited by man, and there at last to be obedient to their laws.” True to their word, they walked away and were never seen again.
Because the Book of Ezekiel prophesizes that in the final days God “will take the children of Israel from among the heathen…and bring them into their own land,” Christian scholars believed that the Israelites’ descendants—Ezekiel’s “children of Israel”—must still be living in some remote place, waiting to be taken back to their homeland. Identifying Indians as these “lost tribes” solved two puzzles at once: where the Israelites had gone, and the origins of Native Americans.
Acosta weighed the Indians-as-Jews theory but eventually dismissed it because Indians were not circumcised. Besides, he blithely explained, Jews were cowardly and greedy, and Indians were not. Others did not find his refutation convincing. The Lost Tribes theory was endorsed by authorities from Bartolomé de Las Casas to William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and the famed minister Cotton Mather. (In a variant, the Book of Mormon argued that some Indians were descended from Israelites though not necessarily the Lost Tribes.) In 1650 James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, calculated from Old Testament genealogical data that God created the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. So august was Ussher’s reputation, wrote historian Andrew Dickson White, that “his dates were inserted in the margins of the authorized version of the English Bible, and were soon practically regarded as equally inspired with the sacred text itself.” According to Ussher’s chronology, the Lost Tribes left Israel in 721 B.C. Presumably they began walking to the Americas soon thereafter. Even allowing for a slow passage, the Israelites must have arrived by around 500 B.C. When Columbus landed, the Americas therefore had been settled for barely two thousand years.
The Lost Tribes theory held sway until the nineteenth century, when it was challenged by events. As Lund had in Brazil, British scientists discovered some strange-looking human skeletons jumbled up with the skeletons of extinct Pleistocene mammals. The find, quickly duplicated in France, caused a sensation. To supporters of Darwin’s recently published theory of evolution, the find proved that the ancestors of modern humans had lived during the Ice Ages, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Others attacked this conclusion, and the skeletons became one of the casus belli of the evolution wars. Indirectly, the discovery also stimulated argument about the settlement of the Americas. Evolutionists believed that the Eastern and Western Hemispheres had developed in concert. If early humans had inhabited Europe during the Ice Ages, they must also have lived in the Americas at the same time. Indians must therefore have arrived before 500 B.C. Ussher’s chronology and the Lost Tribes scenario were wrong.
The nineteenth century was the heyday of amateur science. In the United States as in Europe, many of Darwin’s most ardent backers were successful tradespeople whose hobby was butterfly or beetle collecting. When these amateurs heard that the ancestors of Indians must have come to the Americas thousands of years ago, a surprising number of them decided to hunt for the evidence that would prove it.