Muslims lived in America before Protestantism even existed

Sam Haselby writes:

Muslims came to America more than a century before the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Muslims were living in America not only before Protestants, but before Protestantism existed. After Catholicism, Islam was the second monotheistic religion in the Americas.

The popular misunderstanding, even among educated people, that Islam and Muslims are recent additions to America tells us important things about how American history has been written. In particular, it reveals how historians have justified and celebrated the emergence of the modern nation-state. One way to valorise the United States of America has been to minimise the heterogeneity and scale – the cosmopolitanism, diversity and mutual co-existence of peoples – in America during the first 300 years of European presence.

The writing of American history has also been dominated by Puritan institutions. It might no longer be quite true, as the historian (and Southerner) U B Phillips complained more than 100 years ago, that Boston had written the history of the US, and largely written it wrong. But when it comes to the history of religion in America, the consequences of the domination of the leading Puritan institutions in Boston (Harvard University) and New Haven (Yale University) remain formidable. This ‘Puritan effect’ on seeing and understanding religion in early America (and the origins of the US) brings real distortion: as though we were to turn the political history of 20th-century Europe over to the Trotskyites. [Continue reading…]

Vladimir Nabokov, literary refugee

Stacy Schiff writes:

In February 1917 riots had delivered a revolution. The czar abdicated, replaced by a liberal government, swept into power on a tide of popular support. Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, played a prominent role in that administration. Months afterward Lenin returned from exile, disembarking at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. Within the year, what had begun as an idealistic, progressive uprising would end — like Iran’s, like Egypt’s — in totalitarianism. With Lenin arrived another 20th-century staple: a one-party system in which hacks and henchmen replaced the competent and qualified.

The terror began immediately. On seizing power the Bolsheviks made their first victims the intellectuals who had preceded them. In a scene that sounds to have been lifted from one of his son’s future novels, Nabokov’s father managed a narrow escape; he turned out to have been high on the Bolshevik list of deputies to be shot. From Russian shores that year began one of the great exoduses that would mark the century. Nabokov was never to mourn the immense wealth from which he had been separated, only the lost, liberal chapter of Russian history, obliterated by Soviet propaganda.

The family made their way across Europe to England. Nabokov had on his side the gift of privilege: As he liked to put it, he had been raised “a perfectly normal trilingual child.” At the same time, he had fled without the documents required for university admission. He would matriculate at Cambridge thanks to a borrowed (and no doubt opaque; it was in Cyrillic) transcript. On graduation he joined his family — and the greater part of the Russian emigration — in Berlin. There Nabokov met Vera Slonim, his future wife, who had made a harrowing St. Petersburg escape of her own, compounded by the fact that she was Jewish. In 1919 even Russian liberals were infected with anti-Semitism, the Jews having been credited — in their customary role amid populist unrest — with having turned the country upside-down. Slonim had traveled through Ukraine at a time of widespread pogroms. Also in Berlin, Nabokov would lose his father, assassinated at a political meeting by a right-wing fanatic. (The meeting topic was “America and the Restoration of Russia.”)

In the 1920s Berlin absorbed a Russian community so large that the city supported not only Russian grocers but Russian pawnshops, soccer teams and orchestras. Eighty-six Russian publishers set up shop there. To some it seemed the émigrés had taken over the town. There was no need to venture beyond the expatriate community, and Nabokov did not: He never learned more than a few words of German. (Fortunately Vera had led a perfectly normal quadrilingual childhood.) Theirs seemed in any event a provisional existence. Married in 1925, the couple expected to return as soon as the Bolsheviks fell; into the early 1930s, they still faced impatiently east.

In the meantime Nabokov wrote and wrote, in a void. [Continue reading…]

Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes:

Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed.

Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented: a cumulative process of experiment and recombination that over mere hundreds of thousands of years harnessed phenomena such as fire to cook food, and ultimately smelt metal; as gravity into systems of levers, ramps, pulleys, wheels and counterweights; and mental processes into symbolic art, numeracy, and literacy.

It is this, above all, that marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species (at least until the crows have put in a million years more effort) humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.

This is not because such inventions weren’t hugely important, but because it obscures the fact that all new technologies are at root a combination of older technologies – and that this in turn traces an evolutionary process resembling life itself.

Consider the printing press, the invariable poster-child for anyone wanting to offer a quasi-historical perspective on the dissemination of information. The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was, famously, the first European to develop a system for printing with movable type, in around 1440. Yet he was far from the first person to realise that using individual, movable components for each character in a sentence was a good way to speed up printing (as opposed to laboriously carving every page of text onto wood or metal).

Printing using individual porcelain characters had been developed in China in the 11th Century, and using metal character in Korea in the 13th Century. Gutenberg benefited, however, from the far smaller number of letters in German; from his knowledge of metal-smelting as a blacksmith and goldsmith, which helped him create a malleable-yet-durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; and from his insight that the kind of wooden presses used for centuries in Germany to make wine could be repurposed for pressing type against paper (itself a technology developed in China 1,500 years previously).

Wooden wine-presses, metal alloys, the Roman alphabet, oil-based ink, paper – every piece of the puzzle assembled by Gutenberg and his collaborators was based in a pre-existing technology whose origin could itself be traced back through previous technologies, in unbroken sequence, to the very first tools. [Continue reading…]

The forgotten campaigns of racist terror targeting Latinos in the American West

The New York Times reports:

Arlinda Valencia was at a funeral when an uncle told her a bewildering family secret: An Anglo lynch mob had killed her great-grandfather.

“A mixture of grief and shock overwhelmed me since this was the first I heard of this,” said Ms. Valencia, 66, the leader of a teachers’ union in El Paso. “The more I looked into it, the more stunned I was at how many Mexicans were lynched in this country.”

Ms. Valencia and other descendants of lynching victims are now casting attention on one of the grimmest campaigns of racist terror in the American West: the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century.

Some victims were burned alive, like Antonio Rodríguez, 20, a migrant worker who was hauled from a jail in Rocksprings, Tex., tied to a tree and set ablaze in 1910. Other mobs hanged, whipped or shot Mexicans, many of whom were United States citizens, sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands.

Lynchings have long been associated with violence against African-Americans in the American South, and these atrocities are remembered at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Lynchings of Hispanics have faded into history with less attention. Often, they have been portrayed as attempts to exercise justice on behalf of white settlers protecting their livestock or claims to land.

But a new movement is underway to uncover that neglected past. It has unleashed discussions about the scramble for land or mining claims that frequently influenced these lynchings, as well as the traces of such episodes in resurgent anti-Latino sentiment and the question many parts of the United States are confronting: Who gets to tell history? [Continue reading…]

Sorry, y’all, but climate change ain’t the first existential threat

Mary Annaïse Heglar writes:

Dear Climate Movement:

I’m with you when you say that climate change is the most important issue facing mankind. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s the most important one ever.

But, when I hear folks say — and I have heard it — that the environmental movement is the first in history to stare down an existential threat, I have to get off the train. This game of what I call “existential exceptionalism” is a losing one. It is not only inaccurate, short-sighted, and arrogant — it’s dangerous. It serves only to divorce the environmental movement from a much bigger “arc of history.”

And for me, as a Black woman from the south, it’s downright insulting.

Now, I’ll grant you, we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted — but no less deadly — existential threats for specific populations.

For 400 years and counting, America itself has been an existential threat for Black people. I want you to know that slavery didn’t end with freedom. It just morphed into a marginally more sophisticated, still deadly machine.

I want you to know that Jim Crow — far too tame a name for its reality — was never about water fountains or bus seats or lunch counters. It wasn’t about “integration.”

Instead, I want you to imagine living in constant, crippling fear of humiliation, rape, torture, murder. In a word: terrorism. Lynching was not some abstract threat or a one-time event. It was omnipresent. It hung in the air like humidity. Or the stench of burning flesh. [Continue reading…]

How we discovered that Europeans used cattle 8,000 years ago

By Jane Gaastra, Haskel Greenfield & Marc Vander Linden

The use of animals for their renewable products greatly increased human capabilities in prehistory. Secondary products – or anything that can be gleaned from a domestic animal repeatedly over its lifetime – expanded the capabilities of ancient human societies. They helped to provide enough food and labour surplus to make possible the first ancient civilisations. Apart from their meat, bones and skin, animals gave ancient people vital goods such as their milk and wool. The ability to repeatedly harvest milk from an animal over its lifetime more than doubled the calories that it could contribute to the human diet. The ability to harvest wool from sheep allowed humans to grow a source of meat as well as warm and durable clothing. At some point in prehistory, humans learned that domesticated cattle could pull burdens far greater than humans alone could manage. 

Even after decades of archaeological research, the specific origins of these developments in the management of domesticated animals are not well understood. Studies of the patterns of slaughter of domestic animals according to their age and sex, combined with chemical analyses of the residues left inside ancient pottery vessels, suggest that the consumption of dairy products from sheep, goats and cattle likely dates back into the Neolithic period – at least 8,000 years ago in Europe (c6000 BCE) and earlier in the Near East. The origins of woolly sheep are less well-known. Wild sheep do not have woolly coats, which developed at some point following their domestication. Very few examples of preserved woollen textiles survive for millennia, so the exact date of their production from sheep remains difficult to establish. However, studies of the management of domesticated sheep in prehistory and of artefacts used in the spinning and weaving of textiles suggest that wool was developed in some regions (such as the Near East) by at least 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.

The precise origins of cattle as engines of labour – known as traction – is also murky. In the past, investigators traditionally looked for evidence of items pulled – primarily (but not only) wagons and ploughs. Wagons – known from preserved images such as figurines and rock art – have existed for more than 5,000 years. Early ploughs, such as the ard or scratch plough, were made of wood, and do not preserve well over thousands of years. The oldest known evidence of ploughs in Europe comes from fragments of ards preserved in water-logged ancient sites. They are just under 6,000 years old. Though not nearly as effective as modern machines, early ploughs would have been far faster and easier than having to break compacted earth in fields with hand tools in order to plant crops. They allowed people to plant more crops using less labour, increasing the amount of food that could be grown each year. 

[Read more…]

European colonization of Americas killed so many indigenous people it cooled Earth’s climate

The Guardian reports:

European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down, new research has found.

Settlers killed off huge numbers of people in conflicts and also by spreading disease, which reduced the indigenous population by 90% in the century following Christopher Columbus’s initial journey to the Americas and Caribbean in 1492.

This “large-scale depopulation” resulted in vast tracts of agricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation.

The regrowth soaked up enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to actually cool the planet, with the average temperature dropping by 0.15C in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the study by scientists at University College London found.

“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis. [Continue reading…]

One in 20 Britons does not believe Holocaust took place, poll finds

The Observer reports:

One in 20 British adults do not believe the Holocaust happened, and 8% say that the scale of the genocide has been exaggerated, according to a poll marking Holocaust Memorial Day.

Almost half of those questioned said they did not know how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and one in five grossly underestimated the number, saying that fewer than two million were killed. At least six million Jews died.

The poll, commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a charity established and funded by the UK government to promote and support the international day of remembrance, echoes the findings of a survey carried out in seven European countries in November.

That poll found that one in three people knew little or nothing about the Holocaust, and an average of 5% said they had never heard of it. In France, 20% of those aged 18-34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust; in Austria, the figure was 12%. A survey in the US last year found that 9% of millennials said they had not heard, or did not think they had heard, of the Holocaust. [Continue reading…]

Harry D. Wall writes:

As awareness of the Holocaust declines, we have witnessed, perhaps not coincidentally, a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. The FBI reported a 37% spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2017 compared to the previous year. In October, a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshipers in what was the deadliest attack against Jews in US history.

And in Europe, the very continent where six million Jews perished by Nazi genocide, it is alarming and appalling that anti-Semitism once again threatens Jewish communities.

An EU-commissioned poll in 2017 found that 28% percent of European Jews said they had been harassed that year.

Nearly 90% of European Jews, according to the same survey, believe anti-Semitism has worsened online in their respective countries over the last five years, and more than one in three are considering emigration.

In the face of growing anti-Semitism, there is a compelling need to teach the Holocaust in schools in the US and Europe. Holocaust education also serves a broader purpose, since it can provide a historical context to understand and prevent other atrocities. The Holocaust began with words, racial stereotyping and demonization — and that has also been the prelude to mass violence around the globe. [Continue reading…]

The hidden resilience of ‘food desert’ neighborhoods

Barry Yeoman writes:

Even before Ashanté Reese and I reach the front gate, retired schoolteacher Alice Chandler is standing in the doorway of her brick home in Washington, D.C. She welcomes Reese, an anthropologist whom she has known for six years, with a hug and apologizes for having nothing to feed us during this spontaneous visit.

Chandler, 69 years old, is a rara avis among Americans: an adult who has lived nearly her entire life in the same house. This fact makes her stories particularly valuable to Reese, who has been studying the changing food landscape in Deanwood, a historically black neighborhood across the Anacostia River from most of the city.

When Chandler was growing up, horse-drawn wagons delivered meat, fish, and vegetables to her doorstep. The neighborhood had a milkman, as did many U.S. communities in the mid-20th century. Her mother grew vegetables in a backyard garden and made wine from the fruit of their peach tree.

Food was shared across fence lines. “Your neighbor may have tomatoes and squash in their garden,” Chandler says. “And you may have cucumbers in yours. Depending on how bountiful each one was, they would trade off.” Likewise, when people went fishing, “they would bring back enough for friends in the neighborhood. That often meant a Saturday evening fish fry at home.”

Around the corner was the Spic N Span Market, a grocery with penny candy, display cases of fresh chicken and pork chops, and an old dog who slept in the back. The owner, whom Chandler knew as “Mr. Eddie,” was a Jewish man who hired African-American cashiers and extended credit to customers short on cash. Next door was a small farm whose owner used to give fresh eggs to Chandler’s mother.

Chandler was born into this architecturally eclectic neighborhood. On the basis of oral histories found in archives, Reese mapped 11 different groceries that were open in Deanwood during its peak years, the 1930s and ’40s. African-Americans owned five. Jews, excluded by restrictive covenants from living in some other D.C. neighborhoods, owned six. For much of the mid-20th century, there was also a Safeway store.

Today there are exactly zero grocery stores. The only places for Deanwood’s 5,000 residents to buy food in their neighborhood are corner stores, abundantly stocked with beer and Beefaroni but nearly devoid of fruit, vegetables, and meat. At one of those stores, which I visited, a “Healthy Corners” sign promised fresh produce. Instead, I found two nearly empty wooden shelves sporting a few sad-looking onions, bananas, apples, and potatoes. The nearest supermarket, a Safeway, is a hilly 30-minute walk away. A city council member who visited last year found long lines, moldy strawberries, and meat that appeared to have spoiled.

The common name for neighborhoods like these is “food deserts,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as areas “where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” According to the USDA, food deserts tend to offer sugary, fatty foods; the department also says that poor access to fruits, vegetables, and lean meats could lead to obesity and diabetes. A map produced by the nonpartisan D.C. Policy Center puts about half of Deanwood into a desert.

But Reese, an assistant professor of anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, has joined a number of scholars who are pushing back against the food desert model. She calls it a “lazy” shorthand to describe both a series of corporate decisions and a complex human ecosystem. [Continue reading…]

I survived the Warsaw ghetto. Here are the lessons I’d like to pass on

Stanisław Aronson writes:

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel stated this summer that “when the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history”. As a Polish Jew born in 1925, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, lost my family in the Holocaust, served in a special operations unit of the Polish underground, the Home Army, and fought in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, I know what it means to be at the sharp end of European history – and I fear that the battle to draw the right lessons from that time is in danger of being lost.

Now 93 years old and living in Tel Aviv, I have watched from afar in recent years as armchair patriots in my native Poland have sought to exploit and manipulate the memories and experiences of my generation. They may think they are promoting “national dignity” or instilling “pride” in today’s young people, but in reality they are threatening to raise future generations in darkness, ignorant of the war’s complexity and doomed to repeat the mistakes for which we paid such a high price.

But this is not just a Polish phenomenon: it is happening in many parts of Europe, and our experiences hold lessons for the whole continent. [Continue reading…]