1491: On Sociology as Ecology

I’m still wending my way through the first portion of 1491, discussing the coming of Europeans to America. Specifically, I am at the point where he analyzes Pizzaro’s amazing conquest of the Inca civilization. I’m finding myself with more questions than answers about a lot of things I thought I understood about that period of this continent’s history, but I had a thought I thought I’d share with the Internet.

The big question, of course, is how Pizzaro managed to conquer so much so soon. The old answer was steel and horses, and of course I have long-since understood the more modern and correct answer to concern diseases like small-pox. What I didn’t realize, and what is being presented in this book, is the fact that ~ contrary to my assumtion ~ the small pox probably didn’t come from Pizzaro. That makes sense when you think about it: how could a disease pass from the boats of Pizzaro and reach the farthest points in Inca lands in such a short amount of time?

They couldn’t, but the small-pox infestations brought by Columbus and others in the Caribbean do seem to leave a fingerprint in the records of early colonists, smearing down the coast of Mesoamerica and into the lands of the Inca. That of course raises the spectre of a much larger pandemic, starting in perhaps dozens of little beachheads along the American coast and wiping out whole civilizations as much as a century ahead of the first white footsteps in those lands.

And in fact the most recently-deceased Inca (that was what they called thier rulers) had perished of an unnamed epidemic infection only just recently when Pizzaro arrived. The Inca were an extremely vertically-aligned society with no social mobility that bears many striking resemblances to the Egyptians, indeed they were even more obsessed with the afterlife and devine nobility. Not surprisingly, in such a society, the crowning of a new ruler seems to have commonly been accompanied by the murder or at least severe marginalization of the new ruler’s brothers. Such things secure the power of the new ruler against the only people capable of challenging his rule.

Because of both the plague and the arrival and stunningly audacious attack of Pizzaro, very little of the king-making business was attended to in time. As a result, factionalism set in quickly: the surviving brother challenged his sibling for the throne in many ways, and both brothers tried thier hands at playing the Europeans off their rival.

So really, the breathtakingly swift vanquishing of the Inca nation makes sociology almost seem like ecology. The Inca had dominated the entire west coast of South America for 100 years, having sprung up quickly on the wings of a particularly gifted sense of politics and commerce. Whether thier political structure could have stood the test of time without outside intrusion is something we can never know, but it seems as though the coming of the Europeans radically altered the environment in much more profound ways than simply by scaring them with guns.

Rather than gaining dominance through brute strength, Europeans were the benefactors of the same kind of unforseen consequences that face zebra muscle-infested Lake Ontario.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.