A mural of Cahokia, an ancient, thriving American Indian city

American Myths Debunked: Europeans Brought Culture to North America


And so we come to our second-to-last look at Cracked.com’s “6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America,” specifically myth #5, “Native Culture Wasn’t Primitive.”

The “myth” Cracked.com is trying to debunk is two-fold: One, that American Indians lived in total harmony with nature and that Europeans alone used the natural resources of North American for their own purposes and two, that Natives didn’t create complex cities, and were in general less “civilized” and their societies less developed than Europeans.

For the first part of this two-part myth debunking, Cracked.com cites a report issued by environmental scientists from Stanford who think Natives cut down so many trees they may have, in fact, started a mini ice age.

ScienceNews.com reported on the research in which Stanford University geochemist Richard Nevle reported to the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting that by the end of the 15th century, with between 40 million and 100 million people living in the Americas, trees were destroyed at incredible rates to make room for crops. Some 500 years later, Indians were decimated by the smallpox, diphtheria and other European diseases—wiping out as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population, instigating a major re-growth in trees.

Nevle estimates that the new growth could have soaked up between 2 billion and 17 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air, which “could have diminished the heat-trapping capacity of the atmosphere and cooled the climate,” he and his colleagues reported.

Yes, indigenous peoples from all over the Americas were cutting down trees and harnessing the power of the plentiful forests to feed, clothe and house their families, but the suggestion that, had their not been European-brought diseases to decimate the population there would have been major environmental damage on the scale that, say, the industrial revolution wrought is specious at best. But the claims do speak to the developed nature of the types of communities that existed for eons in North and South America.

As for the second portion of their myth, it has long been known that Natives built highly complex cities, from Cahokia in North America to the Mayan and Aztec cities such as Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan.

Cracked.com cites the much beloved factoid that at Cahokia’s peak, in 1250, this city (located in modern day East St. Louis) was bigger than London, and they cite Discover Magazine’s look at this city of some 20,000 souls who built monuments “rivaling Egypt’s Great Pyramid, then vanished into oblivion.”

It is, of course, no surprise that American Indians built complex societies, great city centers, and massive mounds that are on par with any of the Great Wonders of the World. Discover Magazine points out that Cahokia in particular is an astonishing site, a 4,000-acre complex that stands as the largest pre-colonization settlement north of Mexico. The imagination is stirred by the notion that in the 13th century, long before Europeans came ashore, there existed a magnificent walled city flourishing on the floodplain of the Mississippi River, complete with satellite villages, thatched-roof houses, central plazas, and trade routes that stretched from the Great Lakes to the gulf of Mexico.

What’s even more remarkable is, unlike many other World Heritage Sites, archaeologists still have no idea how this vast, lost culture started, ended, and, as Discover writes, “what went on in between.”

Cahokia was also home to what’s considered “the Great Pyramid of the United States,” according to WorldPyramids.com, and that’s Monk Mound. This gigantic earthwork, situated about a mile from the Mississippi, due north of East St. Louis, is a monument to expert planning and construction. The mound is 92-feet high, 951-feet long and 836-feet wide. It covers roughly 14.4 acres and consists of more than 2.16 billion pounds of non-local soil types.

Monk Mound is also made of limestone slabs, bald cypress and red cedar posts.  WorldPyramids.com explains that the use of limestone slabs is “important as a chronological marker indicating late Archaic construction (3000-1000 BC).”

The colored soil of Monk Mound is being researched to this day. The soil that made up Monk Mound is not found in the surrounding alluvial floodplain where the mound is located, instead these soils were selected for their vivid colors and possibly brought in on rafts or on foot from hundreds of miles away. Blue, red, white, black, grey, brown and orange soils were layered in varying thickness throughout the mound’s construction. Historian Rick Osmon wrote of the mound’s soil on WorldPyramids.com, “the Blue soil is very rare and is known to come from Clay County, Indiana and white soil may be gypsum powder, which is found in northern Indiana. Red and orange soils come from southern Appalachian areas.” Scientists are still trying to comprehend the coordinated effort it took to move 43.1 million baskets of soil hundreds of miles, often on foot. Cracked.com helpfully puts this into a modern perspective—to replicate the effort it took to create Monk Mound, all 13-million of Illinois current residents would have to carry three 50-puond baskets of soil from as far away as Indiana.

Cracked.com goes on to end their piece commenting on the physical differences between Europeans and American Indians. To sum up their point, they write, “In the realm of personal hygiene, the Europeans out-hippied the Indians by a foul smelling mile.”  They cite Charles C Mann’s “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” in which European Verrazzano described a Native who boarded his ship thusly; “As beautiful in stature and build as I can possibly describe.”

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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
The record is pretty clear. Europeans brought death, disease and destruction. Natives we're left with a Bible and the English language.

Submitted by grouchy on
Just wondering how the natives chopped down all those trees? What undiscovered technology did they use? I don't think chain saws had yet been invented. These natives did use control burning to increase game and some crops--as did many of the settlers who learned from them. But cutting down all those trees? GET REAL!

Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
grouchy - They used axes, and cut down a lot of trees. Remember, there were thousands of people, and all of them needed wood for tools, weapons, religious items, boats, and buildings.

Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
The Native Americans at places such as Cahokia might not have denuded the countryside, but there does seem to be plenty of evidence for short-term deforesting. In the mighty cities of Mexico, and Central and South America, the buildings were plastered, which required burning lime to make the plaster. Add that to the need for tools, weapons, and so on, and the forest or jungle was as good as gone. When the local cities went under, the people moved away and the trees grew back. No plastering at Cahokia or other great North American cities, but plenty of buildings, weapons, and tools required wood. Just like in the rest of the world, these places likely went through boom and bust cycles. Population increased during the boom times, increasing resource use; things went bust, and most of the people moved away; the trees grew back, and so did the population centers. I think one reason Europeans didn't see the heavy land use of many areas is because Native Americans didn't (yet) have the means to strip things bare. Their earthworks were overgrown, many times invisible at ground level. Add in the belief that they were savages (even the ones in great cities), and the lack of obvious ruins, and it didn't take long for later generations to discount Spanish accounts of mighty cities and dense populations. At the time, Europeans were all about 'taming' and 'controlling' nature. Humans were supposed to turn everything into farmland and gardens and such. The Americas seemed untouched, and so Europeans had no compunctions about taking this land under the claim that the Native Americans weren't using it. This was one of the big justifications for robbing them blind. Then came the environmental movement, and this 'failure' of the Indians became a virtue, and that mystic 'one with Nature' stuff was touted. No longer knowing all of their ancestors' achievements, Indians had no way to gainsay the idea -- and anything that got them a hearing among whites was something to grab hold of. And now we know that they used the land just as much as any other group of people. I hope this becomes a path towards acknowledging the complexity of indigenous cultures, rather than another rationale for yet more disparagement.