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Native American and European Cultures
Native American European Cultures
It is generally thought that humans first entered the New World during the last ice age and quickly spread over what is today North and South America. When the ice age ended some 15 thousand years ago, the human population of the America's was isolated from the rest of the world. It would not be until the 15th century, when the Spanish sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, that the peoples of the Old World and New World would again be permanently connected. However, in the thousands of years that had passed since the Americas had become isolated, the Native Americans independently developed their own cultures. When the Europeans arrived in the New World at the end of the 15th century, the two cultures that met were very different from each other. While there were a few similarities, the cultures of the Americas and Europe were dissimilar religiously, culturally, technologically, philosophically, and in almost every other way. These differences ultimately led to conflict between the two cultures.
One of the greatest differences between Native American and European cultures was technology. The Native Americans did not have metal technology while the Europeans had been through the Bronze, Iron, and now Steel ages. This technological difference gave the Europeans a major advantage in the production of weapons and the waging of war. But do no think that the Native Americans were scientifically ignorant, for instance, the "Mayan mathematical expertise functioned primarily in connection with numerology, ritual astronomy, and an elaborate cylindrical system, [and] juggled four or five different timekeeping systems simultaneously." (McClellan, 2006, p. 158) On the other hand, the Europeans also had a complex calendar system, however it was one that needed to be adjusted every four years (Leap Years). The Europeans also had a complex mathematical system that was also used for numerology, astronomy, and other sciences. Both cultures had mathematical skills that were used to build extensively, the Mayans and the Aztec were able to build impressive stone monuments, similar to the Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians.
Another example of a culture of the Americas that used a complex mathematical system were the Incas. While the Incas did not develop a written language, they did use complex mathematics within their society. The Incan Empire organized its people on the decimal system, with units of 10 to 10,000 people, as well as possessed a complex set of weights and measurements. In terms of medicine, the Native Americans "also possessed sophisticated botanical and medical knowledge." (McClellan, 2006, p. 163) At a time when the Europeans were still using leeches and "bleeding" people to remove evil spirits, the Aztecs developed an "effective medical pharmacopeia that was at least the equal of that of their Spanish conquerors." (McClellan, 2006, p. 163) In fact, the life expectancy of the Aztec people was at least ten years longer than that of the Spanish.
Another major difference between Native American and European cultures came in their religious beliefs. While the Europeans were almost exclusively Christian in the religion, the Native Americans were very diverse in their religious beliefs. However, there was a similar thread found throughout the religious beliefs of the Americas; nature. Nature played a significant role in the religious beliefs of the Native Americans, while nature was not a significant element of Christianity. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, one of the things they found was that the Aztecs performed human sacrifices, something that the Spanish thought was shocking. Human sacrifice played an important role in Aztec cosmology and understanding of the universe. According to Aztec religious beliefs, the different aspects of the universe required different parts of a person for sacrifice. "The heart, with its abundance of divine force, was offered as nourishment to the sun. The head, similarly, was offered to the sky." (Brodd, 2003, p. 36) Those who were sacrificed often accepted their fate as, according to Native American belief, being sacrificed allowed the victim to enter the highest level of heaven. These sacrifices took place at least once every twenty days, used captive warriors as victims, which meant the Aztecs had a need for constant warfare and a never ending supply of sacrificial victims.
When the Spanish arrived in the New World, one of the first things they witnessed was the sacrifice of a small boy on the beach. This act horrified the Spanish who did not accept that human sacrifices were necessary. In the Christian religion, Christ's sacrifice of himself fulfilled any sacrificial need on the part of God, and therefore, human sacrifice had not been a component of Western religion since the rise of Christianity. When he made his way to the capital of the Aztecs, "Cortez explicitly forbade the practice of human sacrifice to Aztec deities. This meant that after Cortez's arrival there almost was no mention of a single soul being sacrificed…" ("Spanish/Cortez Response")
Not only were Native Americans and Europeans different in technology, customs, religion, but also had very different views of the world. Europe was a primarily Christian place where the tenets of Christianity permeated the whole of existence. Each person's daily life was dictated by the need for salvation and forgiveness from sin. The Christian religion was the only accepted system for escaping the torments of hell after one dies and therefore, the Christian religion, and its promise of individual salvation had been the center of society and culture for the previous thousand years. This idea of personal salvation led to a type of independence that removed the individual from the whole of the world. Humans strove to be apart from the temptations and sins of the world and remain purely spiritual. From this evolved a sense of personal liberty and importance that put the individual above, and outside, the world as a whole. Individualism, the idea that each individual person was the center of their own world, became the prominent worldview.
On the other hand, "for Native Americans, the worldview is one that involves an understanding of the wholeness of existence." (Lovern, 2008) Researchers have described this as a system of "wholeness," or interdependence as an understanding that the individual lives within the world, as a part of a greater whole, and that all things within that world are interconnected. "In this way, the individual does not experience an independence of being as the primary mode of existence." (Lovern, 2008) Instead, the primary view of existence is one where the individual is part, and connected to, the community. Existence can be considered to be communal, involving everyone around the individual. This led to an ethical system where the individual, as part of the greater whole, was also responsible to the whole. The individual was required to both: do no harm to the greater community, as well as to actively help the community, and all its members, whenever the need arose. But the idea of the "community" extended beyond those immediately in the vicinity of the individual human, "to all aspects of existence including environmental…." (Lovern, 2008) This gave the Native Americans a sense of "oneness" with the environment in which they lived and led to a more symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.
The Europeans had a very different idea of nature and their relationship with it. Europeans strove to remain above, and therefore, beyond the physical temptations of the world. This idea of being separate from nature allowed the Europeans to view the environment as a place that could be exploited and harmed without guilt. Because the Europeans did not consider themselves to be part of nature, they did not have any qualms about openly exploiting it, or the things in it including people, animals, natural resources, etc.. This led to many difficulties when the two cultures met and interacted, For instance, Europeans claimed…[continue]
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