Understanding Colonialism — a story of three tribes
In Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012) economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson recount the story of the founding of Buenos Aires
In 1534 the Spanish […] sent out a first mission of settlers from Spain under the leadership of Pedro de Mendoza. They founded a town on the site of Buenos Aires in the same year. It should have been an ideal place for Europeans. Buenos Aires, literally meaning “good airs,” had a hospitable, temperate climate. Yet the first stay of the Spaniards there was short lived. They were not after good airs, but resources to extract and labor to coerce. The Charrúas and the Querandí were not obliging, however. They refused to provide food to the Spaniards, and refused to work when caught. They attacked the new settlement with their bows and arrows. The Spaniards grew hungry, since they had not anticipated having to provide food for themselves. Buenos Aires was not what they had dreamed of. The local people could not be forced into providing labor. The area had no silver or gold to exploit […] The Spaniards, while trying to survive, started sending out expeditions to find a new place that would offer greater riches and populations easier to coerce. In 1537 one of these expeditions, under the leadership of Juan de Ayolas, penetrated up the Paraná River, searching for a route to the Incas. On its way, it made contact with the Guaraní, a sedentary people with an agricultural economy based on maize and cassava. De Ayolas immediately realized that the Guaraní were a completely different proposition from the Charrúas and the Querandí. After a brief conflict, the Spanish overcame Guaraní resistance and founded a town, Nuestra Señora de Santa María de la Asunción, which remains the capital of Paraguay today. The conquistadors married the Guaraní princesses and quickly set themselves up as a new aristocracy. They adapted the existing systems of forced labor and tribute of the Guaraní, with themselves at the helm. This was the kind of colony they wanted to set up, and within four years Buenos Aires was abandoned as all the Spaniards who’d settled there moved to the new town. Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America,” a city of wide European-style boulevards based on the great agricultural wealth of the Pampas, was not resettled until 1580.
In this episode of history, the Spanish conquistadors met two different cultures, a Stone Age culture, Charrúa foragers, and a Neolithic horticultural tribe (Guaraní) and the Spanish conquistadors who had come to rob the Natives of gold were bitterly disappointed when they first met Charrúas: they were not interested in gold and were bitterly poor (at least in the eyes of the Conquistadores). What’s more the Spanish didn’t even manage to subjugate (or enslave) the foragers who fought back with primitive bows and arrows.
Paradoxically, the tables turned when the Spanish encountered the Guaraní, horticulturalists, who were technologically somewhat more advanced than the “primitive” foragers. What was it that made the difference? I will argue that it was biology that made the difference.
a) Foragers are fiercely egalitarian, they are not submissive to anybody, nor do they try to dominate anyone else. Leadership is temporary, changing and dependent on competence. What’s more, hunter-gatherers work
b) Foragers work far less than farmers. They are not adapted to the long, rote work hours of farmers required for weeding, tilling, plugging, sowing, harvesting. Foragers work about 20 hours per week, which is in stark contrast to farmers who depending on the season have to work from dusk till dawn.
c) Foragers have little interest in material goods. They actively discourage material possessions as those diminish mobility.
It should therefore not have been surprising for the Spanish that they didn’t find any gold and silver as other conquistadores found when encountering the Incas, a farming population. Neither should it have been surprising that the Charrúa had any interest in farming work or that they rebelled when the Spanish tried to superimpose themselves upon them.
Why was it easier for the Spanish to subjugate the Guaraní? The farmers did what they could do best. At first, they tried to defend their property and nation as well as they could. Having inferior technology, however, they soon gave in. They were used to hierarchy and the work, and their lives didn’t change that much. One ruling elite replaced another one. Of course, it did make the lot of the poor Guaraní a bit worse, but it’s nothing compared to the change the Charrúa would have had to endure.
This part of history happened at the dawn of the Modern Age. The people involved were slightly different in their genetic makeup, having adaptations to foraging or farming and living in a forager society or in a farmer society. It should be clear by now that a Charrúa could not have lived easily in a Guaraní settlement. It’s a pattern we find all around the world: foragers can’t simply integrate into our societies, not for a lack of good will, but for a lack of necessary adaptations. Hierarchy starts as early as kindergarten, and 9–5 farmer routine work starts as early as elementary school. The last remaining hunter-gatherer bands around the world struggle with unemployment, alcoholism, suicide as well increased incidence of diseases, ranging from digestive diseases and diabetes to ADHD and PTSD.
Hang on, who were the third tribe in this story, the bronze age warriors? Well, the Spanish conquistadores. Neither did they care about egalitarianism, nor were they adapted to farmer work. However, they were good at what pastoralist tribes have always been good at: raiding. Yes, I am claiming that those very conquistadores had overwhelmingly herder genes, being the descendants of a long line of pastoralists and pastoralist types. Pastoralists all over the world are, just like foragers, averse to farming work, which they consider menial.
The conclusion that the conquistadors of our story were pastoralist types may seem completely random and arbitrary. However, it takes a certain type of personality to undertake such an enterprise. They would have had the following traits:
- high risk-takers
- highly value material wealth
- cared relatively little about the natives’ well-being
To some, the Spanish conquistadors were heroes who courageously sailed into the unknown, gathered untold riches and wealth and spread Christianity to the New World. To others, the conquistadors were evil villains who slaughtered native empires, enslaved thousands, and cheated and stole great fortunes. However, it wasn’t gold and treasures that was the real prize for the conquistadors, they left a huge impact in the genome of the natives, the ultimate biological prize:
“There is a clear genetic signature,” said chief author Andres Luiz-Linares, from University College London. “The initial mixing occurred predominately between immigrant and European men and native and African women.” Few details had previously been known about the way the European and native populations mixed. The international team of scientists examined the DNA of 249 unrelated people from 13 populations of Mestizoes — people from a mixed European/native American origin — in seven countries from Chile in the south to Mexico in the north. The same pattern that was found across Latin America, said Professor Luiz-Linares. “We see it in all the populations we examined, so it is clearly a historical fact that the ancestors of these populations can be traced to matings between immigrant men and native and African women.” The evidence suggests a terrible fate for the native males when the Europeans arrived. Professor Luiz-Linares said: “It is a very sad and terrible historical fact, they were basically annihilated. “Not only did the European settlers take away land and property, they also took away the women and, as much as possible, they exterminated the men.” The biggest native American element found in DNA today was found to be in areas which had denser [i.e. horticulturist] populations before the Spanish conquistadors and other colonists arrived in the late 15th Century. ( )
This is a common pattern in pastoralist migrations, most clearly seen in the Yamnaya migrations that were responsible for the spread of all Indo-European languages. Pastoralist colonialism is accompanied by a lack of females, who are then “recruited” from among the indigenous populations. The Vikings are another notorious example.
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on December 28, 2021.