Saturday, 30 July 2011

Rapid cultural evolution: the case of the Iroquois

Cahokia, an Amerindian town on the Mississippi of 10,000 to 20,000 people. A forerunner of what might have been?

Native Indian societies are widely seen as unchanging before Europeans came into the picture. This view sometimes has almost religious overtones. Amerindians lived in harmony with their world, and this harmony was broken by the White man.

Yet this view is at odds with a growing consensus among archeologists. Rapid cultural evolution was already under way in eastern and central North America when the first Europeans arrived. Had their arrival been postponed long enough, they would have encountered millions of sedentary Indians in a zone stretching from the lower Mississippi to southern Ontario. A northern Aztec Empire.

The northern end of this zone experienced the most rapid change. Nomadic hunter-gatherers roamed over southern Ontario and New York State until late in prehistory. Then, some time after 500 AD, these Iroquoian-speaking peoples began to settle into villages and cultivate corn, beans, and squash.

After a slow start, this cultural evolution began to accelerate circa 1300 AD. The result, according to anthropologist Bruce Trigger, was “a dramatic revolution in Iroquoian life”:

[…] Houses became longer and were inhabited by many more families. The length of the houses varied greatly. They were located closer together and began to be aligned parallel to one another in groups that may have been occupied by related matrilineages or individual clans. Villages were surrounded by more elaborate fortifications, and at least some of the village planning may have been intended to reduce the amount of palisades that had to be constructed and manned in order to defend a settlement (Noble 1969:19). Higher frequencies of house extensions and of interior house post densities suggest that individual houses were being occupied for longer periods than previously. This would also have encouraged sturdier construction. (Trigger, 1985, p. 92)

These changes in material culture went hand in hand with an increase in social complexity:

In New York State cultural groupings ancestral to the historical tribes of that region - including the Five Nations Iroquois - also become more clearly defined. […] In all these areas many communities continued to increase in size, probably mainly as a result of the union of two or more existing ones. Many settlements had 1,500 inhabitants. While houses became shorter, they still differed considerably in size. Village planning became more elaborate, with open spaces being provided as work areas and for the disposal of garbage. (Trigger, 1985, p.100)

The increase in social complexity brought changes in political organization:

[…] There is also widespread evidence at this time of neighbouring and hitherto autonomous settlements clustering close to one another to form "tribes." The best documented example is Tuck's (1971:214-16) demonstration that two villages, one small and the other much larger, settled within a few kilometres of each other between AD 1450 and 1475 to found the Onondaga nation. The larger village was itself the result of an earlier fusion of two small ones. This drawing together of communities to form larger settlements and tribes led to the abandonment of many formerly settled areas and produced more widely separated clusters of human habitation. It also created new political groupings, each of which embraced more people than any previous ones in this part of North America had. (Trigger, 1985, p. 102)

There were also ideological innovations that may have come from places farther south, such as the ritual killing of prisoners of war:

Certain key elements, including the use of prisoners, the removal of the heart, the killing of the victim on an elevated platform and in view of the sun, and finally the cooking and eating of all or parts of his body, connect this northern Iroquoian ritual with ones practised in the southeastern United States and in Mexico by the Aztecs, although many specific differences remain. (Trigger, 1985, p. 97)

Finally, there was an intensification of warfare that began before the arrival of European traders or settlers:

There is now also much archaeological evidence of warfare after AD 1400 between Iroquoian groups in the London area and the Fort Meigs culture, found in extreme southwestern Ontario and around the western end of Lake Erie. […] Hence the warfare between the Neutrals and the Central Algonkians which continued into the 1640s might have been the final stages of a conflict that had begun in the prehistoric period. (Trigger, 1985, p. 107)

Trigger concludes that these processes of State formation and militarization were endogenous:

[…] archaeologists may have oversimplified the late prehistory of the Iroquoian peoples and underestimated the dynamism of their cultural pattern and its capacity to generate new forms of creative and destructive behaviour. The Iroquoians now seem to have evolved the essential features of their way of life before the first Europeans appeared along the east coast of Canada. (Trigger, 1985, p. 108)

This cultural evolution was actually accelerating when the Europeans arrived. What if their arrival had been postponed? The Iroquois would have certainly surpassed the mound builders of the Mississippi valley and probably reached a level of civilization like that of the Aztecs.

Such a scenario almost did happen. Indeed, conditions were far from ideal when the English and the French began to settle North America. Western Europe was just returning to the population levels that had existed before the Black Death. The North Atlantic was entering a cold period, called “The Little Ice Age,” that made trans-oceanic crossings difficult. Finally, the Turks were pushing deep into Central Europe, laying siege to Vienna in 1529 and 1683 and vowing to drive on to Cologne.

Had this fragile context taken a turn for the worse, there might have been insufficient will or ability to colonize the Americas. European settlers would have perhaps arrived on the Eastern Seaboard only in the late 1700s.

And beyond the Appalachians, they would have found millions of sedentary Amerindians living in fortified cities and recently united under the aegis of the Iroquois Confederacy …


Trigger, B.G. (1986). Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.


Anonymous said...

I view the North American Indians as having an incomplete nutritional package. Animal foods are essential to the diet in order to grow properly. (I base this on my reading of Weston Price's Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.) Skeletal remains from corn eaters are much less healthy than the hunter gathers. I suspect that population density was limited by the amount of animal food that the tribes could hunt or fish.

I view cannibalism as a means to nutritionally supplement their diet. Compared to regular muscle meat, meat from heart is very nutritious, particularly in vitamin B12 which is only found in animal foods.

Anonymous said...

Since the agricultural developments were fairly recent (in evolutionary terms), would there have been much time for gene selection favoring agricultural traits (e.g. planning, forethought, cooperation, etc.)?

Anonymous said...

Seems reminiscent of the buildup of large scale settlements in the Balkan and Ukrainian Neolithics, proto-civilizations contemporary with those in the Middle East through to India, only to leave no trace, perhaps due to a collision with a more nomadic way of life that was more fit (which seems parallel), a way of life which would have been near impossible in the domestic animal free Americas.

Of course, the above proto-civilizations would be seem to be due to migration, not cultural diffusion (unlike the Iroquois?).

theslittyeye said...

"And beyond the Appalachians, they would have found millions of sedentary Amerindians living in fortified cities and recently united under the aegis of the Iroquois Confederacy …"

That's a very interesting thought. I'd like to think even further in this point. Let's say when the British and French arrived much later in Norther America when Iroquois has already developed a civilization that of Aztec. I don't think US would end up like Latino American countries either. British in the US would then probably undergo the colonization process similar to that of Australia and New Zealand. I don't think US would end up being a mestizo majority country in the new continent. Indians would probably be systematically persecuted and enslaved in early colonial era. In that case there's probably a lesser demand of black slaves and the Amerindians are likely to replace the demographic role of African Americans in contemporary America.... Hmm..

Beyond Anon said...

One more cross for the white man to bear.

The destruction of the incipient high Amerindian Civilization.

Anonymous said...

Disease would have still wiped out the 90% of the population that it probably did. Amerindian immunology would've been no different, and the Europeans easily conquered the Aztecs and Incas because European diseases so effectively cut these people down.

Peter Frost said...


The Iroquois were still getting some food from hunting, although this had become much less important than horticulture. In time, domestic turkeys would have probably spread north from Mesoamerica.


To some degree, sedentary Amerindians were already "pre-adapted" by their earlier heritage as hunter-gatherers in temperate/sub-Arctic environments (which require planning over a yearly cycle).

It may be significant that the pace of cultural change seems to have been faster in eastern North America than in Mesoamerica, and faster still at the northern end (i.e., among the Iroquois). It looks as if advanced sedentary societies tend to arise at lower latitudes but are then overtaken by faster developing societies at higher latitudes.

This may tie in with the correlation between cranial capacity and latitude, even among Amerindians. Northern hunter-gatherers tend to evolve the highest cranial capacities because hunting distances are longer and require greater storage of spatiotemporal information. When these same hunter-gatherers become sedentary and agricultural, they have more potential for further cultural evolution.


The same thought crossed my mind. What happened to the proto-civilizations of ancient Europe?


The English and French settlers would likely have formed Prussian-style "marches" on the Eastern Seaboard. There would have been no Quakerism or pacifist musings by the shores of Walden Pond. The settlers would have eventually subordinated the sedentary Amerindians of the interior, but only at a high cost of human life.


In Canada, European diseases didn't begin to wipe out the Amerindians until the latter began to live in close proximity to European traders and missionaries.

In any case, a population can rebound from an epidemic if it has (a) enough time and (b) a large enough surviving population. Europe did recover from the Black Death, which wiped out a third of its population. Mexico and Peru are still mainly Amerindian today because they entered the post-Columbian period with a large sedentary population.

Beyond Anon said...

The same thought crossed my mind. What happened to the proto-civilizations of ancient Europe?

And now comes the news that migrants from Africa likely caused the demise of the Neandertals ... of course, the question is: Just which Africans? Modern Africans?

Anonymous said...

Calling the human sacrificing cannibals of Mexico and their emulators civilizations is a sick multi-cultural relativist joke.

Robert in Arabia

Anonymous said...

Can a civilization not be potentially evil at its core?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Frost,

Estimates of when disease began to wipe out Amerindians is inconclusive, because of the large time gap between first contact with European disease (late 1400s/early 1500s) and when Europeans fully spread out through the Americas.

In many cases population estimates are very low, because when Europeans first got to the Missippi valley, disease had already taken its toll on a huge % of the population. They didn´t quite realize that at the time.

I don´t know about your specific Canadian example, but it´s possible that the population suffered from various European epidemics, and then stabalized by the time Canadian traders started living with them, introducing new diseases or reintroducing old ones, which further took the population down.

Anonymous said...

Peru and Mexico don´t have ´´seasons´´ the way Europe does. There is no time of year when food cannot be grown in those areas.

They didn´t have the desperate need for planning that people who lived in climates that feature Snow did.

Anonymous said...

"Civilization" seems to refer to vague emotive concepts like "good", "not evil", etc. in most people's minds. If prompted the average person probably can't really define "civilization" aside from offering these kinds of vague terms.

Civilization means population structure of cities built on agriculture.

Ishtara said...

I know that this wasn't the point of the article, but this bit:

"This view sometimes has almost religious overtones. Amerindians lived in harmony with their world, and this harmony was broken by the White man."

...reminded me of Lawrence H. Keeley's book "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage", in which he compares the percentage of violent male deaths due to homicide, warfare and blood feuds in extant hunter-gatherer cultures with the number of violent deaths in Western civilizations.

Among the Jivaroan people, the chance of a man to be killed by other men was up to 60%. In most other hunter-gatherer tribes, the chance of a violent anthropogenic death ranged somewhere between 20 and 40%. In comparison, the rate of violent deaths in the USA and Europe during the 20th century was below 1.5%, and that includes the victims of both world wars!

According to Keeley, 87% of the indigenous peoples of the Americas engaged in brutally violent wars with their neighbors at least once a year. Sometimes the majority of the population of a neighbor village or camp was slaughtered during an attack. The mass grave found at Crow Creek in South Dakota is evidence of such a massacre. Even genocide wasn't uncommon. For example, the Yellowknives tribe in Canada was completely wiped out by continued attacks of the Dogrib Indians.

But people nonetheless believe that that the members of pre-state and pre-civilization (i.e. pre-agriculture) societies in general and tribal Native Americans in particular were peaceable and benevolent and lived in harmony with both their neighbors and the local wildlife (many species of which were likely hunted to extinction by the Clovis people at the end of the last ice age). The myth of the Noble Savage, as opposed to the Evil White Man, is even taught in schools.

It is hardly surprising that most people buy into this romantic Rousseauian lie and are convinced that modern civilization is responsible for all our misery, all strife and warfare and substance abuse (coca leaves, peyote / mescaline or tobacco, anyone?). And of course for the supposedly ever-increasing crime rates that are actually continuously declining. It boggles the mind.