The Beni was no anomaly. For almost five centuries, Holmberg’s Mistake—the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state—held sway in scholarly work, and from there fanned out to high school textbooks, Hollywood movies, newspaper articles, environmental campaigns, romantic adventure books, and silk-screened T-shirts. It existed in many forms and was embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them. Holmberg’s Mistake explained the colonists’ view of most Indians as incurably vicious barbarians; its mirror image was the dreamy stereotype of the Indian as a Noble Savage. Positive or negative, in both images Indians lacked what social scientists call agency—they were not actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way.

The Noble Savage dates back as far as the first full-blown ethnography of American indigenous peoples, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Apologética Historia Sumaria, written mainly in the 1530s. Las Casas, a conquistador who repented of his actions and became a priest, spent the second half of his long life opposing European cruelty in the Americas. To his way of thinking, Indians were natural creatures who dwelt, gentle as cows, in the “terrestrial paradise.” In their prelapsarian innocence, he believed, they had been quietly waiting—waiting for millennia—for Christian instruction. Las Casas’s contemporary, the Italian commentator Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, shared these views. Indians, he wrote (I quote the English translation from 1556), “lyve in that goulden world of whiche owlde writers speake so much,” existing “simplye and innocentlye without inforcement of lawes.”

In our day, beliefs about Indians’ inherent simplicity and innocence refer mainly to their putative lack of impact on the environment. This notion dates back at least to Henry David Thoreau, who spent much time seeking “Indian wisdom,” an indigenous way of thought that supposedly did not encompass measuring or categorizing, which he viewed as the evils that allowed human beings to change Nature. Thoreau’s ideas continue to be influential. In the wake of the first Earth Day in 1970, a group named Keep America Beautiful, Inc., put up billboards that portrayed an actor in Indian dress quietly weeping over polluted land. The campaign was enormously successful. For almost a decade the image of the crying Indian appeared around the world. Yet though Indians here were playing a heroic role, the advertisement still embodied Holmberg’s Mistake, for it implicitly depicted Indians as people who never changed their environment from its original wild state. Because history is change, they were people without history.

Las Casas’s anti-Spanish views met with such harsh attacks that he instructed his executors to publish the Apologética Historia forty years after his death (he died in 1566). In fact, the book did not appear in complete form until 1909. As the delay suggests, polemics for the Noble Savage tended to meet with little sympathy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Emblematic was the U.S. historian George Bancroft, dean of his profession, who argued in 1834 that before Europeans arrived North America was “an unproductive waste…Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and of political connection.” Like Las Casas, Bancroft believed that Indians had existed in societies without change—except that Bancroft regarded this timelessness as an indication of sloth, not innocence.

In different forms Bancroft’s characterization was carried into the next century. Writing in 1934, Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the founders of American anthropology, theorized that the Indians in eastern North America could not develop—could have no history—because their lives consisted of “warfare that was insane, unending, continuously attritional.” Escaping the cycle of conflict was “well-nigh impossible,” he believed. “The group that tried to shift its values from war to peace was almost certainly doomed to early extinction.” *1 Kroeber conceded that Indians took time out from fighting to grow crops, but insisted that agriculture “was not basic to life in the East; it was an auxiliary, in a sense a luxury.” As a result, “Ninety-nine per cent or more of what [land] might have been developed remained virgin.”

Four decades later, Samuel Eliot Morison, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, closed his two-volume European Discovery of America with the succinct claim that Indians had created no lasting monuments or institutions. Imprisoned in changeless wilderness, they were “pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of any hope for the future.” Native people’s “chief function in history,” the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton, proclaimed in 1965, “is to show to the present an image of the past from which by history it has escaped.”

Textbooks reflected academic beliefs faithfully. In a survey of U.S. history schoolbooks, the writer Frances Fitzgerald concluded that the characterization of Indians had moved, “if anything, resolutely backward” between the 1840s and the 1940s. Earlier writers thought of Indians as important, though uncivilized, but later books froze them into a formula: “lazy, childlike, and cruel.” A main textbook of the 1940s devoted only a “few paragraphs” to Indians, she wrote, “of which the last is headed ‘The Indians Were Backward.’”

These views, though less common today, continue to appear. The 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a standard high school textbook by three well-known historians, summed up Indian history thusly: “For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works.” The story of Europeans in the New World, the book informed students, “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”

It is always easy for those living in the present to feel superior to those who lived in the past. Alfred W. Crosby, a University of Texas historian, noted that many of the researchers who embraced Holmberg’s Mistake lived in an era when the driving force of events seemed to be great leaders of European descent and when white societies appeared to be overwhelming nonwhite societies everywhere. Throughout all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, nationalism was ascendant, and historians identified history with nations, rather than with cultures, religions, or ways of life. But the Second World War taught the West that non-Westerners—the Japanese, in this instance—were capable of swift societal change. The rapid disintegration of European colonial empires further adumbrated the point. Crosby likened the effects of these events on social scientists to those on astronomers from “the discovery that the faint smudges seen between stars on the Milky Way were really distant galaxies.”

Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researchers have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. (“We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one,” scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, “the myth of the humanized landscape.”) But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.

Advertisements still celebrate nomadic, ecologically pure Indians on horseback chasing bison in the Great Plains of North America, but at the time of Columbus the great majority of Native Americans could be found south of the Río Grande. They were not nomadic, but built up and lived in some of the world’s biggest and most opulent cities. Far from being dependent on big-game hunting, most Indians lived on farms. Others subsisted on fish and shellfish. As for the horses, they were from Europe; except for llamas in the Andes, the Western Hemisphere had no beasts of burden. In other words, the Americas were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers had previously imagined.

And older, too.

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