Mar 24, 2011

Indian Cornfields

In our traditional way of veiwing Indian peoples, we normaly think of them as hunter-gathers-out hunting in the forests, mountains or plains, or collecting wild roots, fruits or berries. We seldom view them as farmers or cultivators of the soil. Yet we are told repeatly in the Book of Mormon of the Nephite's efforts in planting and harvesting crops. Did the later Indians lose those skills?
Charles Mann, in his excellent book 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, quotes numerous modern scientists who observe that the old notions of the primitive savage that have been taught in the schools and universities for decades are completely wrong. The American continent was well populated with multitudes of people. People who practiced their own form of agriculture, which in many cases was more advanced than that of the old world.  A good example of this is given in the account of Columbus' fourth voyage written by his son Ferdinand.*
He records that they spent much time exploring the coast of Panama, looking for a strait to the Pacific Ocean.  Ferdinand's description of the land and people is very informative.
In stopping at the harbour, which Columbus named Portobello, Ferdinand observes “he gave it that name because it is very large, beautiful, thickly populated, and surrounded by cultivated country. . .The country about the harbor is well tilled and full of houses only a stone's throw or crossbow shot apart, all as pretty as a picture, the fairest thing one ever saw.”
When they arrived at what they called Nombre de Dios, Columbus called the bay Puerto de Bastimentos (supply of provisions) because the surrounding land and islands were full of corn fields.
Some of them went ashore and explored inland from an indian village called Cobrava. There they found cornfields along their route for a distance of six leagues (4.2 km or 2.6 miles). 
That is impressive agriculture for those who for years have been regarded as primitive savages. Ferdinand reports that they were well received by the natives and were given much food. These Indians certainly don't appear to be primitives living off a marginal subsistence diet gathered from the wilds. In fact, many of the later Spanish explorers provisioned their expeditions in part from the supplies that they stole from the Indian storehouses.
Later historical observations that the Indians were few in number and had a marginal society were due to the fact that up to 90% of the population was decimated early on because of epidemics caused by the first European contacts. Subsequent contacts and censuses recorded a substantially reduced society living in survival mode. That, along with the toll taken by the slave trade, completely altered the early observations of a properous, thriving culture given by the first explorers.
*The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand.