Cultures Collide Native Americans and Europeans

Cultures Collide Native Americans and Europeans

Cultures Collide Native Americans and Europeans

The collision of cultures that occurred when Europeans arrived in the New World had vast consequences for both European and Native Americans. Eating habits were revolutionized, as the potato, corn, and chocolate were introduced to the Old World, and sugar, cattle, chickens, pigs, and sheep were introduced to the New World. Patterns of world trade were also overturned, as New World crops--like tobacco and cotton--and vastly expanded production of sugar--ignited growing consumer markets.

Even the natural environment was transformed. Native Americans had not only adapted to the physical environment--they also shaped it to meet their needs. By building irrigation systems and using fire to clear out brush, the Indian people provided themselves with agricultural land and encouraged the growth of wild game. But Europeans had a much more devastating impact on the environment, clearing huge tracts of forested lands and inadvertently introducing a vast variety of Old World weeds. The introduction of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and swine also transformed the ecology, as grazing animals ate up many native plants.
The horse, extinct in the Americas for 10,000 years, produced a cultural revolution. It radically reshaped the lives of the Plains Indians, transforming hunting, transportation, and warfare. Initially, Indians did not know what to make of these huge animals, which one group described as elk dogs.The introduction of the horse encouraged groups like the Cheyenne, who had been farmers, to become hunters. Horses made hunters much more adept at killing wild game.

Death and disease--these too were consequences of contact. Diseases against which the Indian peoples had no natural immunities caused the greatest mass deaths in history. Within a century of contact, the germs that Europeans carried had killed 50 to 80 percent of the Indian population. Disease radically reduced the resistance that Native Americans were able to offer to the European intruders.
For thousands of years, Indians had lived in biological isolation. Unlike Europeans, who were exposed to a large variety of pathogens from birth, the people of the Americas were immunologically defenseless. They had crossed into the New World in small bands, too small to keep epidemic diseases alive. The extremely cold climate of present-day Alaska and Canada kept many diseases from penetrating southward into the Americas. Furthermore, the Indians had no herds of cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep to keep pathogens active. And in America north of Mexico there were few cities with the thousands of inhabitants necessary to spread diseases. As a result, the peoples of the New World proved extraordinarily vulnerable to cholera, gonorrhea, measles, mumps, smallpox, whooping cough, and yellow fever.

Adult men were particularly susceptible to the ravages of disease. Although sometimes called the "stronger" sex, men between the ages of fifteen and forty were particularly likely to die in epidemics. The spread of disease also strained religious belief systems, persuading many that their ancestral gods had forsaken them and leading some Indians to embrace Christianity. While the ravages of disease caused some people to adopt a more nomadic existence, other Indians responded by establishing new tribes out of the surviving remnants of earlier societies.

With the Indian population decimated by disease, Europeans would introduce a new labor force into the New World: enslaved Africans, who would be put to work in mines and on sugar and tobacco plantations in astonishing numbers. Between 1502 and 1870, when the slave trade was finally suppressed, ten million Africans were shipped to the Americas.

Yet it is important to realize that despite the death, disease, and destruction wrought by contact, the people of North America were not transformed into helpless pawns. They retained vibrant cultures that struggled mightily to adapt to a radically changing environment.