"Discovering America:" A Matter of Point of View
How do you discover something if there's already people there?
An Issue with the Question
The very question of "Did Columbus discover America?" presents a problem that many people seldom recognize: the problem with perspective. I am certain that few out there don't already know the history that ensued after the European's landed in the Americas, and the subsequent demise of many Native American cultures along the way. It is not my purpose to discredit the Europeans for having had the wherewithal technologically to go out and discover lands that were far from their own. History happened. However, the two hemispheres were going to find each other no matter what; it was just a matter of who and when.
The "when" is subject to timelines and point of view. The Vikings (Leif Eriksson) actually got to America before Columbus did, as I wrote in another article answering a request along that vein. However, technically, if we allow for the possibility of the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, then people discovered America from Asia many, many thousands of years before Leif Eriksson ever did - somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 25,000 years before depending on what you read, which seems to push their discovery into prehistory and thus imbuing them with "native" status instead. The land bridge is reasonably well established by archaeology, though some people still disagree. My intention is not to start a debate over the Bering thing. Personally I accept it as fact, but readers may feel free to believe or not as they choose. None of that is precisely what I want to talk about today. The purpose of this article is to point out that the real issue in our modern world is one dealing with people's point of view
The Problem with Verbs
By asking, "Did Columbus discover America?" the questioner establishes an entirely European point of view. By using the verb "discover," the question is grounded in a set of assumptions about America that are interesting when broken out, the most significant to my mind being that America was somehow lost or hidden from humanity. To discover something means that you find something never found before. Which, for the Europeans, was true of the America's when Leif Eriksson showed up, and perhaps when Columbus did too, given that he and Leif hadn't been sharing notes. But that was not true of humanity as a whole.
Here's why: the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs (Mexica) people already knew exactly where America was, and there were many more. There were numerous cultures that "discovered" America every morning when they woke up each day, and they had been doing so for thousands of years. They discovered America long before old Leif or Christopher C. ever floated across the sea.
Now, again, my point is not to argue the essence of land bridge discovery vs by boat. My view on that is that if the people living in the Americas had been doing so for twenty thousand years, I'm invoking their status as "native" for the purpose of this modern discussion and the relevent attitudes. Which gets us to the point of point of view.
Taking a World View
For many descendents of these ancient American peoples, or even just folks with a more open world view, the question of "Did Columbus discover America?" seems an arrogant one, one that completely writes off the accurate history. A better question might be, "Was Columbus the first European to find his way to the Americas?" At least this way the implications are more precise. The answer would still be "No, Eriksson did," but this way the questioner is not ignoring the historical reality from a more global point of view.
Technology bridges sky and sea
And that's the point, really. The us-them thing has pretty much played itself out now that the world has gotten as small as it is today. Planes and ships and the Internet have made this planet very, very small. We have to, in the name of accuracy, pull our planetary focus, our cultural view, out a little further if we are going to really understand our common human history. We can't say "we" and mean just a singular country's course, or just those of a dominant few.
Not now. Not since airports and sea ports are shuffling us all together culturally. Yes, we all have our own unique histories, and perhaps even our favorite ancestry too, but the thing is, archeology has already got some pretty good evidence suggesting we share the same ancestry if we take it back far enough in time . This whole European, Asian, African, American thing may just turn out to be us selecting how far back we choose to look, drawing arbitrary lines around ourselves in the sands of time.
A Matter of Respect
So my point is simple really, and that is to help facilitate camaraderie. I'd like to see folks better get along. A good place to start is to look at what we say and what our words, our verbs, might actually mean if we gave them any thought.
Think about the quesiton of Columbus "disovering" America again in the light of so many different peoples already living in the Western hemisphere when he arrived. If I showed up on your street and planted my flag on your front lawn, and then I told everyone that I had just discovered your house, wouldn't that make you mad? Ok, maybe not at first, not if nobody was listening to me. But what if my claims became what passed as "truth" and what was fed into the history books? Then you might have a few things to say; you might not like it very much.
So that's all I really wanted to point out. It's not about cultural pride or activism or anything approaching politically correct. It's not even really a matter of respect, although it certainly ends up that way. No, mainly it's a simple matter of accuracy. It starts with picking a better verb. And perhaps with a bit of re-education, of "discovering" a more global point of view.
Great Books and Movies from the"Other" Point of View
There is lots of great literature and film out there that view the world from a lens other than a European one, and that still manage not to make anyone too mad. And even if they do make you mad, it's still good to learn from someone else's point of view. And some of them are just plain awesome works of art. (I highly recommend Annie John).
Deep and Philosophical
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