Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Druid Nation

The well-known reality is that 102 Puritans from England landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620.

But instead of Puritans, imagine the same number of Buddhist monks had arrived. Or, perhaps a boatload of Druids came ashore on that cold, miserable day in December. Envision the last remaining members of that mysterious priesthood, first mentioned in Julius Caesar's diaries in 55 B.C, standing on the beaches of North America.

Would the original inhabitants of North America have been treated better? Would there have been slavery? Would the United States have become, for lack of a better word, a more eco-friendly country from the very beginning?

Alas, the arrival of Europeans, or for that matter benign Buddhist monks, probably meant the civilizations of North and South America were fated from the start, almost from the moment the conquistadors clanked ashore in their suits of armor in the fifteenth century. But it was not because of guns, or horses, or organization, or corruption of the locals--or Christianity. The unstoppable enemy was disease, unwittingly brought (at least initially) by Europeans, of which "Native-Americans" had no immunity.

Because of Jared Diamond and others, we know that geography matters--and matters a lot. Unlike the early inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere, Europeans had domesticated animals such as oxen, cows, and pigs that did not exist in North and South America. Humans contracted diseases that jumped from animals to humans and over time built up a degree of resistance to them. Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Cortez, Pizarro and other Europeans traveled with the ultimate weapon--not gunpowder--but hideous viruses like smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, and measles. It turned out to be an unimaginable "ethnic cleansing" of entire civilizations. It may have been the greatest pandemic in human history.

A number of Christian fundamentalists in the United States, in their feverish fantasy of turning the country into some nonsensical theocracy, claim that the U.S. is a "Christian" nation: Christian only among the deluded perhaps.

What we know now--because of science and a readiness to consider other possibilities--is that North America (along with Central and South America) was not an immaculate, virgin forest, inhabited by a handful of primitive savages--"noble" or otherwise.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the continent was teeming with civilization, and religion, and diverse groups of people, and yes, even wisdom ... the kind that may still have environmental relevance in our present day. Grasslands had been burned for thousands of years to prevent the encroachment of forests; farming was common; villages and towns existed throughout the continent; trade and commerce had been flourishing for hundreds of years. (For anyone interested in some fascinating--and oftentimes controversial--theories about the Americas, a worthwhile read is 1491 by Charles C. Mann.)

The what if struck me again and again as I read Mann's book. And, while the winners may write history, we humans collectively enjoy our "soothing" songs, stories, and myths. More to the point, we don't like them questioned or challenged.

About a week ago one of the leading science advisory groups in the United States said the U.S. "could soon lose" its competitive edge in science. But, if even half the numerous polls and surveys are correct, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in and are guided by magic. What if?

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