In a world filled with redundancy, repetition, and nothing new under the sun, one moment in time stands out as deliciously unique—the moment of reunion between two groups of humans who had been geographically separated for millennia unnumbered. In other words, 1492—when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Because the people Columbus “discovered” had been cut off from the rest of the world for who knows how long, the reunion offered the rare opportunity to learn all kinds of things about our species, to determine which traits are universal and which are cultural, and to figure out once and for all what really makes us clever monkeys tick.
Then the moment passed.
We got distracted, as always, by fussing, fighting, and dying, and the moments kept slipping away until here we are today.
But we can’t just let that moment go. It’s too important, too tantalizing, too rife with possibilities, and I hope it isn’t too late to learn a thing or two from it. If we could pry ourselves away from our usual fussing, fighting and dying—even for just a moment—surely we can still learn something very important.
When we look back at that singular event in 1492, the first thing we should notice is how similar all those people were. Oh, I know, history buffs will howl in indignation, eager to cite dozens of differences between the Europeans and the people they encountered. But the differences between Columbus and the Native-Guy-Whose-Name-We-Did-Not-Think-to-Record are incidental, compared to the differences between Columbus and the seagulls dropping guano on his poopdeck or between the Native Guy and the palm trees standing as silent witnesses to this momentous meeting of long-lost relations.
Humans are humans, after all, and, regardless of the massive cultural differences between the men meeting on that fateful beach, the thirsty mosquitoes buzzing ‘round their heads surely found them all delicious.
If all humans everywhere are members of the same species, then Columbus and the Native Guy were basically brothers. Of course, in 1492 the Europeans immediately concluded they were Big Brother, because their cultures were obviously more advanced than any in North American. Europe was, after all, the Old World, and those newbie Americans had their work cut out for them just to catch up with all the wonders of modern civilization.
But, um, just calling one culture older than another doesn’t make it so, you know. Maybe at some point some people wandered this way while others wandered that way, but at no point in human history did new people just materialize out of thin air. The fact is, all humans on earth can trace their lineage back for the exact same amount of time. Therefore, the First Americans were not the goofy kid brother of the know-it-all Europeans. If anything, these races were fraternal twins.
What this means is that North American cultures of 1492 were not a throwback to the Stone Age, not some lost cluster of cavemen that time somehow forgot. Though they were, perhaps, geographically separated from the rest of the world, as far as I know the First Americans had not gotten caught in a stasis field wherein they stayed exactly the same for 15,000 years while the rest of the world grew up. In 1492, the people of North America were every bit as mature, every bit as evolved as their counterparts of Europe.
Wait–what? If the First Americans weren’t primitive savages, then what the hell were they? Is it possible the cultures of Europe were not clearly better, brighter, older and wiser than those in North America, but that they were, in fact, just different? But . . . but that flies in the face of everything we’ve been absolutely certain of for over 500 years! Ah, well. Vanity of vanities . . . there is no new thing under the sun.
It is so human to make mistakes. Before Columbus, Europeans were quite sure the earth was flat. Columbus himself died convinced he’d made it to China. For 500 years we’ve been absolutely certain the Indians were lagging far behind Europeans in cultural development. But what if that magic moment in 1492 was the meeting of two absolute equals? What if the First American cultures were different from those of Europe, not because Americans were primitive savages, but because the First Americans made a whole series of different lifestyles choices than did the people of Europe?
I wrote The Spirit Keeper because I am hopelessly fascinated with the different choices made by the peoples of Europe and North America. To me, the differences between Columbus and Native Guy, which seemed so vast and insurmountable to the two of them but so incidental to the hungry mosquitoes, are a treasure trove of insight into the human species, and by comparing the choices the people made, I think we can pull out all kinds of golden nuggets of pure truth. Most of the basic choices of daily life—food, clothing, shelter, family, community, language—were made according to very different criteria in those two very different worlds. And, by the way, neither of those worlds was old or new, advanced or primitive, better or worse—they really were just different worlds.
Though I could go on and on about the repercussions of the choices made by the different people, I think I should pause a moment to let readers digest what I’ve said thus far.
But please hurry. The moment’s almost gone . . .
Next time: The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned from the First Americans