The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

I found the most interesting part of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina, which I visited recently, to be the section on the Cherokee Nation before European contact. In particular, because the displays divided up this time into various dated periods, it offered a fascinating opportunity to compare Cherokee material culture with that from other cultures elsewhere in the world at the same time. Given my background, that immediately got me juxtaposing the material culture of the Cherokee in the Woodland period (1000 BCE – 900 CE) with that of the Anglo-Saxons. In the late-seventeenth century, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons invaded the territory of the Cherokee (and eventually destroyed or relocated the vast majority of the Cherokee Nation). But could you have predicted that back around 900 CE, at the time of King Alfred?

Museum of the Cherokee Indian exhibit: Stone pipe in the shape of a bird

In some ways, Woodland period Cherokee and Anglo-Saxon material culture seem quite similar. Both societies were of settled agriculturalists, with construction either predominantly or exclusively in wood. Indian culture probably had more effective weapons around 900 CE, reflecting a society where hunting played a more vital role in food provision. The Cherokee had very high-quality bows and arrows, as well as spear-throwers, improving the accuracy and distance of a spear cast. Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Cherokee had skills in pottery and textile-working; unlike them, they also had a particularly developed craft of basket-weaving. Some small stone-carvings of theirs survive. In terms of what we can deduce about their non-material culture from later sources, the Cherokee also show parallels to the Anglo-Saxons in their development of complex religious myths and laws.

So what did the Anglo-Saxons have that the Cherokee didn’t? Some stone buildings, but relatively few. Cherokee pottery incorporated admixtures of additional elements to improve its strength, but it was purely handmade, rather than using a potter’s wheel. And there are some conspicuous absences to an early medievalist’s eye. The Cherokee didn’t have domesticated animals (including horses). There’s no glass and very little metalwork (a few copper objects, I think obtained by trade); there was no mention of coinage. Although they had canoes, they didn’t have ocean-going ships. And, of course, there were no books, inscriptions or any other kind of writing.

Though some of those differences may not have much effect, collectively in the long-run (600-800 years), they allowed Englishmen with guns and horses to appear in North Carolina, rather than the other way round. Even if it was mostly diseases that killed the early modern Cherokee, rather than British weapons, there was still a considerable difference in material culture by that point. Why is that?

As Jared Diamond has pointed out, there weren’t domesticable animals in North America (the only one in South America is the llama/alpaca). And it’s a lot easier to develop ocean-going ships in England, where it’s impossible to be more than 70 miles from the sea, and where it’s actually useful to be able to cross the Channel, than a region where you’re 300 or more miles from the sea and you could just follow the coastline anyway for days to contact other communities. But the other key point is that the Anglo-Saxons were at the tail-end of technological developments that they adopted from other civilizations, in a way that the Cherokee weren’t.

Parts of Anglo-Saxon England were aceramic for a while; in the fifth century; at that stage they were having to recycle metal from Roman remains, because they’d lost the ability to smelt iron. The early Anglo-Saxons also had no writing. Much of the material culture they did have by 900 CE had been adopted from other nearby cultures (or specifically brought to England by outsiders, as with the Roman/Celtic missionaries and writing). Vast amounts of the material culture the English had by 1700 CE had also originated from elsewhere; some innovations, such as paper and gunpowder, had come from as far away as China. In fact, it’s difficult to think of many important technological innovations first developed in England before 1600 CE, although by the seventeenth century, English science and technology were more inventive (we’re getting to the era of Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke).

In other words, the real advantage that the Anglo-Saxons and the English had over the Cherokee was their proximity to other societies with more complex material culture. And their great luck was that they never faced invading forces that were technologically more advanced and wanted to remove them from their land. The Vikings had something of a technological edge in terms of military equipment, but even when they conquered parts of Anglo-Saxon England, there’s not much evidence of complete population replacement. In contrast, despite the fact that the Cherokee were regarded as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by English settlers and later the US government, that didn’t prevent most of them from being expelled from North Carolina, on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argues that the Spanish defeated the Incas because of geography: Eurasia had more domesticable animals and crops and such innovations could spread more easily east-west than north-south (because of climate change at different latitudes). Europe (and Western Europe in particular) later benefited from a coastline nearer to the Americas than other parts of Eurasia. But there’s always been a counter-claim that Europeans were simply more innovative in some way than Native Americans.

If you compare the Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons, that claim’s not really convincing. In terms of inventiveness, for example, there’s no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the development of the Cherokee syllabary, within a couple of centuries of contact, even though the Anglo-Saxons and their Continental ancestors must have been aware of Roman writing for centuries. The English technical innovations of the seventeenth century came on the back of a millennium or so of borrowed technology. If English people had had only the Mississippian Culture to borrow from (as the Cherokee did until Europeans came), rather than China, India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, I find it hard to believe they’d have come up with the Golden Hind or the balance spring. The real luck of the Anglo-Saxons, which the Cherokee didn’t share, surely came in the form of their Eurasian neighbours.








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