The first accounts of Native Americans, the native peoples of the Americas, that were widely read in the West were those of Columbus in 1493 and Amerigo Vespucci in 1505. Vespucci’s account was so well known that the new land was called America, after his Latin name, Americus.
Columbus in his letter of 1493, speaking about the Taino people of the Caribbean:
all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them
They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they fitted to use them. This is not because they are not well built and of handsome stature, but because they are very marvellously timorous… It is true that, after they have been reassured and have lost this fear, they are so guileless and so generous with all that they possess, that no one would believe it who has not seen it.
They do not hold any creed nor are they idolaters; but they all believe that power and good are in the heavens
I have not been able to learn if they hold private property; it seemed to me to be that all took a share in whatever any one had, especially of eatable things.
an island “Carib”, … is inhabited by a people who are regarded in all the islands as very fierce and who eat human flesh.
He is probably guessing about their religion and ideas of property. He did not see any cannibalism first-hand, but is repeating what the Tainos said about their enemies.
Amerigo Vespucci in “Mundus Novus” (1505) on the Tupi people of the coast of Brazil:
All of both sexes go about naked … just as they spring from their mothers’ wombs…
all things are held in common. They live together without king, without government, and each is his own master. They marry as many wives as they please; and son cohabits with mother, brother with sister, male cousin with female, and any man with the first woman he meets. They dissolve their marriages as often as they please, and observe no sort of law with respect to them. Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion and are not idolaters, what more can I say? They live according to nature…
human flesh is a common article of diet with them. Nay be the more assured of this fact because the father has already been seen to eat children and wife…
The women as I have said go about naked and are very libidinous;
They live 150 years.
This is overblown at best. For example, the Tupi did not eat human flesh as everyday food but practised ritual cannibalism – to honour the dead, to gain the courage of an enemy fallen in battle.
The stereotype of Native Americans as “savages”, noble or otherwise, comes from Columbus and Vespucci. The people they saw were hardly what the West would now call “primitives” or hunter-gatherers. They were farmers. They had towns. Instead they seemed “savage” because they were seen through a Eurocentric deficiency model.
Source: Berkhofer, Robert F., “The White Man’s Indian” (1979).
- The Spanish
- The term “Indian”
- Native Americans
- Examples of the deficiency model