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  • Joshua Nicholson

Holmberg's Mistake

I don’t know about you, but I was always taught in school that pre-Columbian North America was a pristine wilderness where scattered tribes hunted in untouched woodlands and lived in “primitive” wood huts. The only exceptions were the Mesoamericans and Incan Empire, who possessed large and developed societies. The reason for this is, in part, a guy named Allan Holmberg, who lived with the Sirionó people of the Amazon. His research argued that the indigenous peoples of the region were the most backwards in the world, lacking art, numbers, or even the ability to make fire [1]. From this he drew his conclusion: that the indigenous people of the region had always lived like that, and had existed in a primitive state of nature for all of history. His conclusions were in line with mainstream anthropology at the time, and were generalized across the Americas.

Obviously, that’s wrong. We know that from the Amazon to Washington State, complex societies existed. The reason Holmberg found the Sirionó people in such a state was because of European diseases, which enacted such a toll that their culture couldn’t recover. Essentially, the entire image of Pre-Columbian America is a myth of our own lack of understanding as white people. If you looked down from a satellite view, you wouldn’t just see Mayan pyramids and Incan roads surrounding otherwise “primitive” peoples, but also large mounds in Illinois and great cities in the Amazon rainforest. I won’t focus on the people we’re already familiar with, even though they may need some myth busting too (I assume your school didn’t teach you that the Mayans were the first civilization to invent the concept of zero), but instead break down how Cahokia, Mesoamerican philosophy, and societies in the Amazon all contradict Holmberg’s conclusions [2].

Before the development of these cultures, the first humans may have settled in North America as long as 16,000 years ago, known by evidence discovered at Meadowcroft, Pennsylvania [3]. The question is: did these groups change to a more settled society, with cities and organization to rival those of Afroeurasia? That answer is undoubtedly yes. Starting between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, domesticated squash became a staple of ancient North Americans from Missouri to Maine [4]. The invention of farming, done independently of the plant domestication in Mesoamerica, warranted the creation of new societies. These societies, which would become known as Mississippian cultures, created vast man-made mounds which served as central storage and gathering places. At the Lundy site in Illinois, an extremely large concentration of artifacts was found, including pots, bowls, and seed containers [5]. While hunter-gatherer societies did create pottery, most notably in the fishing groups of Japan and Maine, these pots were different [6]. Rather than being used for cooking, the Mississippian pots were found to be for storage, with remains of maize, squash, and nuts discovered inside [7]. This stands in contrast to Holmberg’s assertions that the Sirionó, and by association, most indigenous peoples, were unable to solve economic problems due to a technological inability to preserve and store food [8]. In reality, looking at the pottery itself, these peoples belonged to a cultural and trade network which wrapped from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, following a specific cultural aesthetic [9]. Its center? Cahokia.

An illustration of Monk's Mound at the site of the former Cahokia settlement [W.R. Brink & Co, History of Madison County, Illinois, 1882]

The Cahokia site is a remarkable example of North American peoples not being simple hunter-gatherers lacking historical agency. The city was situated near modern day St. Louis, and rose to power at the beginning of the early Mississippian period (1050 C.E to 1200 C.E) due to the introduction of maize. This crop from Mesoamerica grew its population and led to the unique designation of Cahokia as an agricultural city [10]. However, this crop proved to be both the instrument for centralized power and the bane of the city’s existence. Following the trend of cities in the old world after the agricultural revolution, the creation of centralized authority in Cahokia came from the need to consolidate the large supply of maize being harvested [11]. Furthermore, the rapid increase in population from this development, up to 20,000 people, led to a people unaccustomed to urban living quickly cutting down all the surrounding trees for use as fuel. If you remember middle school science, you can probably begin to see the issue for a city lying directly on the Mississippi river, which also placed the legitimacy of its government around the ability to maintain divine favor. First, floods ravaged the city due to erosion and shifting creek beds. When the leaders of the city couldn’t solve that, the people became restless, and began to doubt their power. By the beginning of the 13th century, the city was leveled by a great earthquake which, while not immediately ruining the city, led the community to destroy itself in civil violence [12].

What do we learn from Cahokia? We learn that the indigenous peoples of North America were urbanizing. Even if we wouldn’t consider Cahokia a city in the old world sense (it was more a collection of 20,000 farmers who also built the mounds at the command of the ruling class), it can’t be expected that a continent with no influence from the old world would develop the same political systems or religious ideas. The Americas, prior to Columbus’s discovery and Cortés's conquests, were a source of extremely unique civilizations. We don’t just have to look at Cahokia, a city of mounds and farmers and the center of an entire culture, but also at the Mesoamericans, who besides discovering zero and building city states, had a literary and philosophical tradition to rival the Ancient Greeks.

I won’t touch too much on this, because if you’re reading this you’ve probably gained somewhat of a familiarity with the people of southern Mexico: the people who built some pyramids, made famous calendars, and conducted human sacrifice. However, across the region, they also made great contributions to the literary tradition. Much like the writings of Ancient Greek and Roman historians, the Mixtec people wrote multiple codices, or books, of which eight survive, detailing their history in epic stories [13]. The Maya, too, possessed a writing tradition, developing philosophical ideas which still exist today through four preserved codices. These codices detail important topics of Mayan philosophy, including the origin story of the world, the nature of identity, substitution, and the mythical origins of the people [14, 15]. What is most interesting though is that these cultures established traditions of philosophy similar to those of Greece and China. The Nahua people, who constituted the Aztec Empire, considered there to be a concept of philosophical ethics to determine how best to live in the material world [16]. Their society had a concept of trained, career philosophers, known as tlamatinime, whose job was to look after books and provide a variety of counsel in religious, political, and social realms for good living [17]. The philosophies of the Nahua people are unique in that they were influenced in no way by old world ideas. While the Silk Road may have taken certain ideas between Europe and Asia, the Mesoamericans, and by extension all Indigenous Americans, produced their knowledge without interaction with Europe, Africa, or Asia. I particularly love this bit of wisdom from Nezahualcoyotl, a philosopher-king of Texcoco, who said “I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this: is it true one really lives on the earth?” [18]. I’ll let you ponder that as we move a little further south, not to the grand Incan Empire and its vast roads, but to the Amazon rainforest.

Anthropological consensus, even predating Holmberg, used to conclude that the Amazon rainforest was a terrible climate for anything other than hunter-gatherers. In fact, one of Holmberg’s conclusions was that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon couldn’t develop because of a lack of agriculture and failure at hunting [19]. This idea was parroted by prominent anthropologists such as Betty Meggers, who concluded any complex civilization in the Amazon migrated from the Andes mountains, only to slowly become less civilized [20]. What if I told you that this is one of the greatest archaeological and anthropological mistakes in human scholarship [21]? In reality, hugely complex societies existed in the Amazon rainforest prior to the arrival of Europeans. From Bolivia to the island of Marajó, humans made the rainforest their home. They did this by building mounds, a familiar pattern we saw in the cultures of the Mississippi river. In the upland part of the Amazon, around the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru, there exist a variety of man-made earthworks which may have served a multitude of purposes [22]. These same earthworks are found across the region, including in the Beni region of Bolivia, where large population centers lived on mounds connected by walkways and surrounded by canals [23]. Here, despite perceived limitations, lived cultures as sophisticated as the Incas and Mesoamericas, which in the region just north of Beni may have held up to 60,000 people [24]. The conclusion here is obvious: the Amazons were not solely inhabited by hunter-gatherers for all of history. Unlike the opinions of past anthropologists, these indigenous societies were not disconnected from history, and may have actually had a large impact on the environment, settling the Amazon when the area was still savannah and then burning and clearing the land when the rainforest started to expand southward [25].

These cultures didn’t just develop on the western side of the region, with one of the Amazon’s most distinctive cultures living on the island of Marajó, situated in the river estuary where the Amazon river meets the sea. Here, the Marajóara culture lasted from 800 C.E. to 1400 C.E., leaving behind pottery, grave sites, and a host of archaeological evidence for their existence. While some scholarship from Meggers claimed the Marajóara were a culture which migrated from the Andes, only to be destroyed by the limitations of the jungle, archaeologists such as Anna Roosevelt believe the island housed over 100,000 people who adapted to the swampy terrain by building platforms and growing crops in the interior [26]. Moreover, this wasn’t a culture which descended from a group traveling from elsewhere, but instead were home-grown Marajóarans. This culture would have been large enough to rival the Inca and Mesoamericans, contradicting Holmberg’s idea that Amazonian peoples lived in a permanent nomadic state of food insecurity. Unfortunately, these people have been lost to time, with even more cultures likely having existed across the Amazon basin, all long destroyed due to European disease before direct contact.

The Indigenous people of the Americas were not simply hunter-gatherers who waited around for Europeans to bring them into the fold of “human history.” In reality, they were making their own histories. They traded vast distances, from the Great Lakes to Mesoamerica. They built great cities, from Cahokia to Tenochtitlan to huge population centers in the Amazon. They developed sports, poetry, and philosophy. They engaged in mathematical and scientific pursuits, becoming some of the most knowledgeable cultures in the realm of astrology. It would be a disservice to themselves for anyone to go their whole life believing in the myths created by Holmberg and others, not because of an intentional lie, but because we’ve forgotten about the complexity of these civilizations due to centuries of bias.


[1] Allan R. Holmberg. Nomads of the Longbow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Book. 1985.

[2] Berenice Rojo-Garibaldi et al.. “Non-power positional number representation systems, bijective numeration, and the Mesoamerican discovery of zero.” Research article. 2021.

[3] Steve Moyer. “The First Americans.” Magazine article. 2014.

[4] Wayne D. Rasmussen et al.. “Origins of Agriculture.” Britannica Encyclopedia Entry. 2015.

[5] Thomas E. Emerson. “The Apple River Mississippian Culture of Northwestern Illinois.” Journal Article. 1991.

[6] O. E. Craig et al. “Earliest Evidence for the use of Pottery.” Journal Article. 2013.

[7] We’ll talk about maize in North America in about 30 seconds of reading time? Depends on how fast you are.

[8] Holmberg. Nomads of the Long.

[9] Thomas E. Emerson. “The Apple River Mississippian Culture of Northwestern Illinois.” Journal Article. 1991.

[10] Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Book, 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Book. 2011.

[13] Maarten Jansen. “The Search for History in Mixtec Codices.” Journal Article. 1990.

[14] Substitution is essentially the means in which a person can become a substitute for a deity on earth, so a dancer performing a certain ritual will substitute themselves as the deity and then become that deity momentarily.

[15] Alexus McLeod. “Primer: Precolumbian Mayan Philosophy.” Lesson Primer. n.d.

[16] L. Sebastian Purcell. “Eudaimonia and Neltiliztli: Aristotle and the Aztecs on the Good Life.” Journal Article. 2017.

[17] Deborah L. Nichols and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría. The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs. Book. 2017.

[18] Miguel León-Portilla. Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Book. 1992.

[19] Allan R. Holmberg. Nomads of the Longbow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Book. 1985.

[20] Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans. Archaeological Investigations at the Mouth of the Amazon. Book. 1957.

[21] That might be a bit dramatic, but you get my point.

[22] Martti Pärssinen, Denise Schaan, and Alceu Ranzi. “Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purús: a complex society in western Amazonia.” Journal Article. 2009.

[23] Charles C. Mann. “Earthmovers of the Amazon.” Magazine Article. 2000.

[24] Martti Pärssinen, Denise Schaan, and Alceu Ranzi. “Pre-Columbian geometric earthworks in the upper Purús: a complex society in western Amazonia.” Journal Article. 2009.

[25] Jeremy Hance. “A garden or a wilderness? One-fifth of the Amazon may have been savannah before the arrival of Europeans.” Science Article. 2014.

[26] Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Book. 2011.


Craig, O. E., H. Saul, A. Lucquin, Y. Nishida, K. Taché, L. Clarke, A. Thompson, D. T. Altoft, J. Uchiyama, M. Ajimoto, K. Gibbs, S. Isaksson, C. P. Heron, and P. Jordan. "Earliest Evidence for the Use of Pottery." Nature 496, no. 7445 (April 2013): 351-54.

Emerson, Thomas E. 1991. "The Apple River Mississippian Culture of Northwestern Illinois." In Cahokia and the Hinterlands : Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest, 164–82. Urbana: Published in cooperation with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency by the University of Illinois Press.

Everett, Caleb. "'Anumeric' people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?" The Conversation. Last modified April 25, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Hance, Jeremy. "A garden or a wilderness? One-fifth of the Amazon may have been savannah before the arrival of Europeans." Mongabay. Last modified July 9, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Holmberg, Allan R. Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1985.

Jansen, Maarten. "The Search For History In Mixtec Codices." Ancient Mesoamerica 1, no. 1 (1990): 99–112.

León Portilla, Miguel. Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Mann, Charles C. "Earthmovers of the Amazon." Science, February 4, 2000. Accessed February 9, 2023.

———. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 2011.

McLeod, Alexus. "Primer: Precolumbian Mayan Philosophy." The Deviant Philosopher (blog). Accessed February 9, 2023.

Meggers, Betty J., and Clifford Evans. "Marajó Island: Conclusions and Interpretations." In Archaeological Investigations at the Mouth of the Amazon, 404-25. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology bulletin 167. Washington D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 1957.

Moyer, Steve. "The First Americans." Humanities, March/April 2014. Accessed February 9, 2023.,known%20collectively%20as%20Clovis%20people.

Nichols, Deborah L., and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría. The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Pärssinen, Martti, Denise Schaan, and Alceu Ranzi. "Pre-Columbian Geometric Earthworks in the Upper Purús: A Complex Society in Western Amazonia." Antiquity 83, no. 322 (December 1, 2009): 1084-95. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Purcell, L. Sebastian. "Eudaimonia and Neltiliztli: Aristotle and the Aztecs on the Good Life." APA Studies on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy 16, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 10-21. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Rasmussen, Wayne D., George Edwin Fussell, Kenneth Mellanby, Kusum Nair, George Ordish, Gary W. Crawford, and Alic William Gray. "Origins of Agriculture." Edited by Steffen Heilig and Rasoul Shiri. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified September 29, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Rojo-garibaldi, Berenice, Costanza Rangoni, Diego L. González, and Julyan H.e. Cartwright. "Non-power Positional Number Representation Systems, Bijective Numeration, and the Mesoamerican Discovery of Zero." Heliyon 7, no. 3 (March 2021): e06580.

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