Luck and 'backwardness': A new story of European contact with the Americas

Amanda Cravens

One of the most important events in the history of the last half millennium is the European "discovery" of the Americas. The traditional story of the contact explains the Europeans' eventual success by crediting the superior technology and military prowess of the Europeans. If the traditional story mentions luck at all, it is in explaining the Europeans' good fortune at finding such a sparsely populated "pristine" continent. While it is true that European ship technology was more sophisticated than that of the native peoples of the Americas, European conquering and exploration of the Americas was as much the result of three non-technological factors as of the sophistication of European ship technology. The first was Europe's relative backwardness in comparison to the Middle and Far East, the second was macro-evolutionary factors such as geography and relative lack of natural resources, and the third was plain dumb luck.

Europe's biggest motivation for westward exploration was a desire to access trade with the Far East. It was the continent's relative backwardness that prevented their achieving this access through eastward movement. The land route to the Indies was blocked because of European inability to compete with the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire stretched across the main trade routes. Carlo Cippola remarks on the irony that as Europeans were expanding on the sea, "on her eastern border she was spiritlessly retreating under the pressure of the Turkish forces." (Note 1) As a result, European nations who wanted the ability to trade with China and the rest of the Indies for goods such as silk and spices were forced to find another route, since they were not strong enough militarily to fight the Turks on land and gain access through the Middle East.

The second factor of backwardness that spurred westward exploration was the fragmented nature of Europe's political system. Because the continent was home to many separate and competing nation states, each country was forced to find its own route. This competition also increased the desire for Eastern goods, since these goods represented wealth and thus the ability to pay for expensive wars and triumph over neighboring states. If the European continent had been one united body politically, the desire for Eastern goods might have been less, and westward exploration of the Americas might never have occurred since all of Europe could have benefited from the Portuguese route to the Indies around Africa. But because of the lack of a unified political system and competition between nation states, the Spanish not only did not benefit from Portugal's Africa route, but were even more driven because of it to find their own access to the Indies to prevent an increase in Portugal's ability to compete.

Another set of non-technological factors which explain Europe's success in the Americas relate to geography and what Paul Ehrlich calls "macro-evolutionary factors." (2) Part of this success can be explained by the particular set of natural resources and plant and animal species that were present in Europe, as well as by the geography of the (Eurasian) continent itself. Another reason that Europe had such a desire to trade with the Indies was their own relative lack of natural resources. Both because of a cooler temperate climate and lack of mineral supplies, Europe relied on trade to provide goods it needed. Examples of these good include cotton, which had to be grown in tropical areas, and certain minerals for metal-working, which were being traded as early as Greek times. (3) This desire to trade probably spurred the development of the ship technology that made Europe so powerful, and certainly determined how it was used. China actually had the technology to make long ocean voyages very early on, (4) but the Chinese empire's political stability (which meant there wasn't competition driving voyages) and abundant natural resources (which meant China wasn't desperately seeking access to goods it couldn't otherwise acquire) prevented the desire for exploration.

Combining favorably with a strong desire for trade because of a lack of natural resources was the geography of Eurasia. The Mediterranean sea, as well as the frequency of navigable rivers, and the size of the Eurasian continent meant that European traders were part of a large network of human contact that touched a large population. This population was large enough to support a set of diseases called crowd diseases that contributed greatly to European success in America. Certain diseases die out in populations that are not above a certain threshold because infected people either die or produce antibodies that prevent re-infection. Thus "to sustain themselves, [these infectious diseases] need a human population that is sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently densely packed, that a numerous new crop of susceptible children is available for infection by the time the disease would otherwise be waning." (5)

Geography that allowed contact with a large human population wasn't the only macro-evolutionary factor that contributed to the power of European disease in the Americas, however. Europeans brought numerous diseases to America which devastated native populations, but they received in return only (possibly) syphilis. The reason that the Europeans had more infectious diseases also can be explained by macroevolution; Europeans had many more domesticated animals. Because of the particular set of species present in Europe, Europeans domesticated more species and species that were more susceptible to crowd disease because they live in larger herds naturally. Climate and geography then allowed the Europeans to keep these animals in larger numbers.

In the Americas, the domesticated species were limited to ducks and turkeys, guinea pigs, and llamas. The major reason for this limited complex of species was the limited amount of starting material, since many mammals went extinct in the Americas during the last Ice Age. The American birds lived in smaller flocks and humans had less contact with them than with larger mammal species. Llamas (which in any case only lived in certain areas in the Andes and not throughout the continents) were kept in smaller herds, were not milked (a common way germs are spread is drinking the milk), and were not kept inside human dwellings. (6) In contrast, Europeans had large numbers of cattle, sheep, and pigs, from which evolved a variety of human diseases, including measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and influenza. By the time of exploration and contact, the Europeans had developed antibodies to these diseases, but the native peoples of the Americas were totally defenseless. (7) In addition, lack of protein in the American diet (because of its reliance on a single protein-deficient grain maize) may have contributed to the effect of disease. The fact that the main grain available for domestication was maize was another macro-evolutionary factor.

The third non-technological factor that contributed to European success was plain dumb luck. By an unfortunate (for the Aztecs) coincidence, Spanish contact with the Aztecs happened at a time when the Aztecs were embroiled in a civil war resulting in the short term from a crisis of succession, as well possibly from long term problems of lack of land. Political turmoil within the empire made the Aztecs less able to counter Spanish military action than they might otherwise have been. A second coincidence was the correlation between Aztec religion and the conquistadors. Since certain gods within the Aztec religion were portrayed as white beings mounted on strange animals, the appearance of the Spanish on their horses was at first heralded as divine presence. As a result, by the time the Aztecs realized the Spanish were not gods but enemies, the Spanish already had the advantage, having seen the inner workings of the society, frightened the poplace, and spread their diseases to the Aztecs.

This luck, however, only aided the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The largest factor which allowed the European success in the Americas was the presence of infectious European diseases to which the natives of America had no resistance. William Denevan explains how the myth of America as a pristine continent is partially the result of depopulation. Disease may have wiped out as much as 90% of the pre-contact population of the Americas. Denevan, using numerous examples, emphasizes the degree to which the environment Europeans encountered in 1492 was humanized and not "pristine." Native peoples' impacts included changed vegetation composition, deforestation, altered microclimatic patterns, disruption of wildlife, erosion, and numerous settlements, fields, roads, and earthworks. Disease brought by the Europeans moved rapidly, often spreading to tribes that the Europeans had not encountered, and sometimes wiping out whole peoples. By the eighteenth century, massive depopulation as a result of disease meant that the natural processes which burning, farming, building, and irrigaion had altered had reclaimed many of these humanized landscapes. While some reports of a "pristine" continent were the result of European misinterpretation, most are the result of European contact with previously humanized landscapes which had decayed because of depopulation. (8)

Thus the myth of the Americas as a pristine continent, often used to justify European occupation and settlement, is actually a result of the fact that European diseases devastated populations that the Europeans never realized existed. The lethal nature of these diseases to American peoples was the result macroevolution determined by the particular species present in Europe as well as trade spurred by European backwardness. Thus diseases the Europeans brought eventually provided them with a sparsely populated continent. By the time European settlers arrived in certain areas, the land had been vacant for as long as hundreds of years. But what these eighteenth and nineteenth century settlers took for pristine wilderness was actually overgrown and abandoned but previously humanized landscapes. This revised story of the contact between Europe and the Americas has profound implications both for how history portrays indigenous peoples' societies, as well as for how we, as modern day Americans, manage the wilderness areas we consider as "pristine."


1. Carlo M. Cipolla, Guns, sails and empires; technological innovation and the early phases of European expansion, 1400-1700. Manhattan, Kan. : Sunflower University Press, 1985. p. 140.

2. Paul R. Ehrlich. Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000

3. Colin Chant. Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. Routledge Press.1999, pp. 48-80.

4. Dick Teresi. Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science. Simon and Schuster, 2002, pp. 325-367.

5. Jared M. Diamond. Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton, 1997. p. 203.

6. ibid. p. 205.

7. ibid. p. 207.

8. All the information in this paragraph is taken from William M. Denevan, "The pristine myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492." Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Volume 82, Issue 3, Sept. 1992. pp. 369-385.

Read the author's other essays:

Technology, Population, and the Impact of Ancient Humans on the Environment

The Dynamic Relationship Between Technology and Culture

Population and the Environment: Are We Doomed?

Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste (Final Project)

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last updated 3/16/03