September 06, 2005

Pistolls Ready

Well I've been a laggard about posting of late. Sorry. Been busy doing much writing, editing, and of course, Labor Day drinking. Now that that's over and done with, here's a fun piece by Charles C. Mann in the Boston Globe, asking whether the Europeans were really so much more technologically advanced than the Native Americans they encountered in the 15th and 16th century. Probably not:
Even the Europeans' purported superiority in military technology was evanescent. The "peeces" that Winslow thought the Wampanoag wanted, for example, were less than they seemed. To be sure, Indians were disconcerted by their first experiences with European guns: the explosion and smoke, the lack of a visible projectile. But the natives quickly learned that 16th-century matchlocks were fired by shoving a flaming fuse into an open pan of gunpowder, a process that took two or three minutes for every shot. In any case, most of the colonists were such dreadful shots, from lack of practice, that their muskets were little more than noisemakers.

By contrast, Indian longbows were fearsomely fast and precise--"far better than the average musket of the Plymouth colonists in rapidity and accuracy of fire," according to the noted arms scholar Harold L. Peterson. Wielded by people who had practiced archery since childhood, they could shoot 10 arrows a minute and were accurate up to 200 yards. To the dismay of colonists at Jamestown in 1607, a Powhatan Indian sank an arrow a foot deep into a target the Europeans thought impervious to an arrow shot--"which was strange," Jamestown council president George Percy observed, "being that a Pistoll could not pierce it."
So much for Pistolls. More to the point, an MIT archaeologist, Heather Lechtman, has recently discovered that "Inca metallurgy was just as refined as European metallurgy," but it was used for different purposes—tokens and ornamentation rather than tools—and so wasn't much appreciated until very recently. In any case, Mann argues that it was probably disease rather than European technology—germs, not guns or steel—that allowed the Spanish, French, and British to "conquer" the New World. Three cheers for microorganisms, I guess.
-- Brad Plumer 8:43 PM || ||