Prescott’s Good Sense
|William H. Prescott|
William H. Prescott, was a noted American Historian. Today he is best known for his massive History of the Conquest of Mexico and his History of the Conquest of Peru.1 Both still in print and often published together as a single volume.
Prescott who lived 1796-1859 C.E., did not have available to him the vast corpus of resources and findings that would help a modern scholar do a book about the conquest of Mexico and Peru. He instead had to rely on the limited, and it was limited, first hand accounts, further he had to rely on the limited ethnographic and to the extent there was any archaeological data that was available concerning the indigenous civilizations of the New World. His History of the Conquest of Mexico was published in 1843 and his History of the Conquest of Peru in 1847. Although Prescott did visit various Spanish archives he never did visit either Mexico or Peru.
Further given the limited nature of researches into the indigenous civilizations there flourished a veritable industry of fantasy concerning these cultures. This makes Prescott’s achievement even more remarkable.
Prescott wrote a short essay in his Appendix, Part I, called Origin of the Mexican Civilization – Analogies With the Old World.2 This essay despite more than a century and a half since it was written merits re-reading especially by those who still take hyper-diffusionism seriously.
In the essay Prescott after analysing the problem that faced Europeans after the discovery of America; i.e., explaining America with its very different Animals and to say nothing of the human inhabitants goes on to discuss the various issues in relation to that issue.
But rather interestingly Prescott in a footnote mentions concerning the Norse discovery of America c. 1000 C.E., that:
Whatever skepticism may have been entertained as to the visit of the Northmen, in the eleventh century, to the coasts of the great continent, it is probably set at rest in the minds of most scholars since the publication of the original documents by the Royal Society of Copenhagen. [Prescott here supplies the reference.] How far south they penetrated is not so easily settled.3This rather interestingly cast doubt on the “alternative” dogma that the Norse discovery of America was denied by “orthodox” scholars until L'Anse Aux Meadows was discovered and excavated in the 1960’s.
After outlining how man could have come to the new world via the Bering strait over to Alaska and hence to America. Although Prescott acknowledges that man could have gotten to America relatively easily via Iceland, Greenland to America.
Prescott then states the question:
Whence did the refinement of these more polished races come? Was it only a higher development pf the same Indian character, which we see, in the more northern latitudes defying every attempt at permanent civilization? Was it engrafted on a race of higher order in the scale originally, but self-instructed, working its way upwards by its own powers? Was it, in short, an indigenous civilization? Or was it borrowed in some degree from the nations of the Eastern World?4Prescott right away points out the problem. If the civilization(s) is indigenous how do we explain the striking similarities between them and those of the old world. If derived from the civilizations of the old world then:
If Oriental, how shall we account for the great dissimilarity in language, and for the ignorance of some of the most simple and useful arts, which once known, it would seem scarcely possible should have been forgotten?5Prescott then discusses some of the resemblances between Mexican religion and old world traditions. The Flood he dismisses has far too common and obvious myth to require diffusion others he regards the analogy between the old and new world as simply to far-fetched. Like finding the tower of Babel story in a Mexican myth.
Prescott then discusses the myth of Quetzalcoatl. Prescott unfortunately takes seriously both the myth of Quetzalcoatl being a Whiteman and the myth of return. The story of Quetzalcoatl being a white man is totally false the story of Quetzalcoatl returning is dubious.6 Despite this Prescott dismisses the idea that this requires a diffusionistic explanation.
In their amazement, they [The Spanish] did not reflect, whether these things were not the natural expression of the religious feelings common to all nations who have reached even a moderate civilization.7This is Prescott’s response to those who catalogue a list of religious similarities between the old and new world and think them evidence of diffusion.
Thus Prescott states regarding the piling up of common traits between civilizations:
It is true, we should be very slow to infer identity, or even correspondence, between nations, from a partial resemblance of habits and institutions. Where this relates to manners, and is founded on caprice, it is not more conclusive than what flows from spontaneous suggestions of nature, common to all.8Thus Prescott records that such things as cremation of the dead are of little proof of a common origin between the Mongols and the Aztecs for example. However then Prescott adds that if we add certain details such as putting the ash into a vase and adding a precious stone the resemblance becomes remarkable. The accumulation of traits in a particular context can add up even if individually they mean little.9
Prescott then goes on to what he calls the sciences. Prescott notes that like many of the peoples of East Asia the Mexicans used cycles of time, although of different time periods, further there is a strong similarity between the names of days and similar time periods between East Asia and the Mexicans.10
Next Prescott discusses language. After pointing the sheer number and variety of languages in the New World. Prescott contends, erroneously, that all the languages of the New World had certain “organizational” similarities. Prescott is simply mistaken here. However he is right to point out that in terms of vocabulary or “etymology” they differ radically. Prescott points out that vocabulary similarities between the Old and New world are based upon indiscriminately selecting words from a vast number of languages and then finding correspondences in another language chosen in a equally indiscriminate manner. Although in one case Prescott finds an arresting similarity, [Prescott is wrong here], Prescott is dubious about the whole enterprise.11
Only by comparing a wide number of examples can you do much of anything with this sort of comparison and contact with Europeans makes results even more dubious.12
Prescott then records that the Asiatic origins of the Aztecs are perhaps indicated by surviving native traditions of the migration from Aztlan and resemblances in language with the peoples of the Pacific North West. And of course Prescott mentions the obvious and significant similarity of appearance between the natives of the Americas and those of the Far East in Asia. Prescott notes the strong similarities in physical similarity between Mongolians and the peoples of the Americas.13
Then Prescott goes into architecture. Prescott mentions the pyramids of the Mexicans and notes that scholars have assumed contact and influence from the similarities between Egyptian pyramids and Mexican ones. Prescott mentions the widespread destruction by the Spanish of these monuments and condemns it.14
After mentioning the widespread destruction of Mexican structures Prescott mentions the remains such as Milta, Palenque etc, which have survived. Prescott mentions the fineness of the sculpture and mentions that no iron tools have been found associated with these structures although some copper ones have been. Prescott mentions that similar tools have been found near Thebes, Egypt. Prescott refers to speculation that a metal was used to make tools which subsequently decayed away. Prescott does not take this seriously recording that the evidence indicates that only copper and bronze tools were used in the Americas and that the natives carved very hard stones with it.15
Prescott than compares the pyramids and structures of the Old and New World. Prescott notes the similarities such as using red ochre dyes on building orienting buildings to the four directions etc. Further the actual sculptures of say Palenque are quite different from Egyptian sculpture and cannot be mistaken for it.16 For as Prescott says:
The points of resemblance will, probably, be found neither numerous nor decisive.17Prescott then mentions the hieroglyphs and concludes that there isn’t enough information to make much of a comparison but that it bears little resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Interestingly Prescott thinks that the hieroglyphs of Palenque, (A Mayan site), represent an advanced hieroglyphic system that may be phonetic. Well congratulations to Prescott for getting the nature of Mayan writing right. Unfortunately Prescott then assumes that the language and its writers will remain unknown. He seems to have forgotten that the local Mayan Indians were the creators of cities like Palenque and that this was viewed as the case by the more knowledgeable of the time.18
Prescott then muses about how old these monuments are and notes there is no, (then), satisfactory way of dating them. Such things as the amount of debris tells little given the abundant growth of jungle.19
Prescott then discusses the mutability of tradition and how quickly things can be forgotten. Unfortunately Prescott gives the example of the builders of the pyramids being forgotten by the time of the earliest Greek Historians. This is incorrect given that Herodotus clearly records, correctly, the builders of the three Great Pyramids. Prescott then correctly records how quickly things are forgotten, such as whether or not the lean of the tower of Pisa was deliberate or an accident and how the inhabitants of Texecco forgot very quickly when their royal palaces were actually built.20
Prescott then records that although Aztec civilization has many similarities with those of Asia that “they should differ in so many more…”.21 Prescott things that if they borrowed anything it was items of their own choosing that “best suited to their particular genius and institutions”.22
Regarding contact Prescott contends the following:
But it is scarcely possible to reconcile the knowledge of Oriental science with the total ignorance of some of the most serviceable and familiar arts, as the use of milk, and iron, for example; arts so simple. Yet so important to domestic comfort, that when once acquired they could hardly be lost.23Thus in regards to the possibility Prescott regards the absence of certain traits has evidence of a kind indicating something about the nature of contact if any. For if the Mexicans had, for example been in contact with people who used iron how could they not have acquired the use of it?
Prescott then makes another mistake asserting in a footnote that some North American tribes had domesticated the Bison. Thus is in error the Bison was never domesticated anywhere in the New World.24
Prescott then goes into a speculation that perhaps Bison were deemed to dangerous to domesticate and further that iron was too difficult to work compared to copper. Prescott then speculates that perhaps the migration of the Aztecs from Asia was before the use of iron in Asia and from a people unfamiliar with the use of milk.. Prescott admits that this is simple speculation with little or no evidence to support it.25
In his History of the Conquest of Peru Prescott does briefly refer to the problem of the origin of Peruvian civilization. Prescott thinks that analysis points in the same direction as analysis of the Mexican civilization although the coincidences and striking similarities are less.26 Prescott thus concludes that:
Yet in the light of analogy, afforded by the institutions of the Incas, seems to point, as far as it goes, towards the same direction; [Towards the conclusions of the analysis of Mexican Civilization.] and as the investigation could present but little substantially to conform, and still less to confute, the views taken in the former disquisition, I have not thought it best to fatigue the reader with it.27In his conclusion to his essay Prescott sums up that the subject is contradictory and perplexing and it is hard to come to a positive conclusion. However Prescott does conclude with two statements.
The reader of the preceding pages may, perhaps, acquiesce in the general conclusions,- not startling by their novelty,-First, that the coincidences are sufficiently strong to authorize a belief that the civilization of Anahuac [Mexico] was, in some degree, influenced by that of Eastern Asia.And secondly, that the discrepancies are such as to carry back the communication to a very remote period; so remote, that this foreign influence has been too feeble to interfere materially with the growth of what may be regarded, in its essential features, as a peculiar and indigenous Cvilization.28
Prescott’s essay should be read by all those who expose diffusionistic theories of the origin and development of New World civilization as Prescott indicates the pitfalls and errors of such reasoning. Further although he accepts a possible dffusionistic input from East Asia he regards the development of New World civilizations to be primarily indigenous mainly on the basis of substantial differences and by the lack of certain characteristics. Basically hyper-diffusionism is untenable but some low scale diffusion is possible. Wholesale borrowing is unlikely in the extreme and the past 150 years of work have made hyper-diffusion if anything even more unlikely. That some borrowing occurred remains possible but has not been demonstrated and the piling up of coincidences is not evidence.
Certainly a topic that Prescott almost entirely ignores the difference in food crops between the Old and New World would certainly indicate that the contact was sporadic at best. If the resemblances with East Asia are striking there is still no real evidence of contact. The lack of artifacts is striking. What we are left with is possibilities. One thing does seem clear though the civilizations of the New World were largely and probably overwhelmingly of indigenous origin.29.
It has been over 150 years since Prescott wrote the above conclusion quoted and it still holds.
1. Prescott, William H., History of the Conquest of Mexico, History of the Conquest of Peru, Cooper Square Press, New York, 2000, (Original pub. 1843, 1847). For more about William H. Prescott see Wikipedia, William H. Prescott Here.
2. IBID, Prescott, pp. 689-714.
3. IBID, p. 690 Footnote 8.
4. IBID, p. 691.
5. IBID, p. 692.
6. IBID, p. 692, Davies, Nigel, Voyagers to the New World, William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York, 1979, pp. 125-140.
7. IBID, Prescott, p. 695.
8. IBID, p. 699.
10. IBID. pp.699-701.
11. IBID, pp. 701-703, Meltzer, David J., First Peoples in a New World, University of California Press, Berkeley CA., 2009, pp. 137-148.
12. IBID, Prescott. p. 702.
13. IBID, pp. 703-705.
14. IBID, pp. 705-706.
15. IBID, pp. 707-708.
16. IBID, pp. 708-709.
17. IBID, p. 708.
18. IBID, pp. 709-711.
20. IBID, pp. 711-712, Herodotus, The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, Anchor Books, New York, 2007, Book 2, s. 124-134, pp. 172-178.
21. Prescott, p. 712.
24. IBID, pp. 712-713.
25. IBID, p. 713.
26. IBID, pp. 820-821, Note.
27. IBID, p. 821.
28. IBID, p. 714.
29. See Davies, MacGowan, Kenneth, & Hester, Joseph A. Jr., Early Man in the New World, Revised Edition, Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1962, pp. 233-276, Fritze, Ronald H., Invented Knowledge, Reaktion Books, London, 2009, pp. 63-103, Stiebing, William H. Jr., Ancient Astronauts Cosmic Collisions and other Popular Theories About Man’s Past, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY., 1984, pp. 131-166, Feder, Kenneth L., Frauds, Myths and Mysteries, Third Edition, Mayfield Pub. Co., Toronto, 1999, pp. 98-132, Wauchope, Robert, Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.