Momentous Monday: Planet of the cousins

July 12, 1592 — which was exactly three months short of a century since Columbus didn’t quite make it to America — Fray Diego de Landa continued the barbaric genocide and cultural erasure of the Native peoples of the Americas, but we’ll get to him in a moment or two.

Spain had started the slaughter competition first, of course, via their Italian proxy, who established the first colony in Hispanolia (not its real name) in 1493, and then proceeded to rape and kill the natives. Portugal was hot on their heels, and they all mostly wound up in South America, with forays into Florida and the North American West.

France came along and established their first colony in 1534, focusing on the territory from Florida up to Nova Scotia. Eventually, their biggest influences would be on Louisiana in the U.S., Québec in Canada, and a couple of colonies in South America, which are now reduced to the single Department of French Guiana, on the Atlantic coast.

England toddled on over in 1607, aiming right for… New England. Okay, it wasn’t called that yet, but Plymouth Rock was where the Pilgrims claimed to have landed — although that story may have been a bit of 18th century bullshit.

So what did the natives of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag confederation call their home of Plymouth Harbor?

We don’t know, because none of the white invaders bothered to record it. And, anyway, the natives all caught European diseases for which they had no natural immunity, and most of them died.

On the other hand, the indigenous people indirectly returned the favor when los Conquistadores took syphilis back to their wives, mistresses, and other cumdumps back in Europe. I say “indirectly” because the Spaniards didn’t get it from messing with the natives.

Nope. They got it because they would not stop fucking the sheep. True story.

The Dutch were the latecomers, but there was that little unfortunate detail that they had actually been a colony of Spain themselves until achieving independence, so they didn’t start colonizing until 1648.

But what got this whole game of killing people and taking their land rolling? Two factors, really: Religion and greed. Whether the religion was sincere or not, it still had the same outcome in a big game of “Convert or die.”

The Catholics from Spain, France, and Portugal were experts at this game, but the Protestants involved were no slouches either — the English and Dutch did their fair share of damage for the sake of “saving” the heathens, although they didn’t quite go about executing them strictly for not converting.

I mean, they still killed them, just in more aggressive and war-like ways without using the excuse of religion.

Why? See factor #2, greed. That was almost the first lesson Europe learned when Spain started coming back from the New World with ships loaded down with all kinds of commodities, but especially silver and gold.

At first, it elevated Spain to one of the major world powers in a very short time. However, they also quickly learned one of the downfalls of accumulating too much wealth too fast without spreading it out to the economy in general: Inflation in the rest of Europe soared, with prices increasing from three to five times, effectively making all of that Spanish gold and silver worth a lot less. Oops.

They also became subject to piracy because everyone knew their ships were transporting ridiculous wealth across the Atlantic, so it essentially painted targets on their sails. The ultimate outcome was that Spain lost its superpower status — and the Dutch gained their independence — by the mid-1600s.

Now keep in mind that, for the most part, very little of the gold, silver, or other precious commodities heading east were actually fairly purchased from their indigenous owners. “Conquistador” means “conqueror” after all, so they didn’t exactly set up meetings with tribal leaders while waving check books around.

What they did do was find cities and empires — and pre-Columbian America had a ton of them, even though you never learned that in school — and a lot of those cities were decorated in gold, silver, precious metals and gems. Oh, not because they had any inherent monetary value — stuff you could eat was the real currency — but because they just looked pretty and shiny.

So the conquerors simply came in and pillaged and ransacked. The short definition of those words is “broke stuff, took the valuable bits, and killed whoever got in the way, with or without raping them first.”

Now, if you take away an edible commodity, like the potato or tomato (which Europeans did), you have the one great advantage of being able to make more back home, and so you can leave the natives alone for that. But you can’t plant and grow precious metals or gemstones.

You can mine them, of course. and you can also probably be a lot more successful growing native crops in their native land, but those are the jobs that rich white people don’t want, so what to do?

Oh, right. We’ll force the natives to do it for us — and, hey, we found all these other native on that big continent south of Europe, so let’s bring them over to “help.” Oh, not willingly, of course. Why bother when we have all the guns?

So…in large part, every single country in the Americas (and that includes you, Canada, especially you) exists because…

  1. A) The Europeans took the land away from the people already living here, killed off most of them, and herded the rest into virtual concentration camps while barring them from participation in white society.
  2. B) The Europeans took people away from the land they were already living on in a place we named Africa, and brought them here to be nothing more than property, considered at best to be slightly intelligent beasts of burden who would till the land, pick the cotton, and occasionally make babies for their white owners — I’m looking at you, Tom Jefferson.
  3. C) Even after we ended slavery, we didn’t really end slavery, we just changed its name and perpetuated it by limiting opportunities for people of color. It didn’t end with the post-Civil War amendments. It didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act. It sure as hell hasn’t ended yet.

Fray Diego de Landa is a prime example of the utter destruction that religious fanaticism, blind bigotry, and possibly even greed can do in the long term. He was the acting Bishop of Yucatán, where the Maya reigned.

The problem is that some Maya converted to Catholicism, but then continued to worship their traditional idols and follow their old ways. Or, in other words, they had not sufficiently suppressed their own culture.

And therein was the Catch-22 of religion. If you don’t convert, they have no power over you. But if you do… (insert name of) god here. So ol’ Diego called an Inquisition in the city of Maní, and it led to an auto de fé.

This happened on July 12, 1592, and it involved the destruction by burning of about 5,000 Mayan “cult” images, along with most of their existing codices, or books.

Did I mention that most of the confessions of being apostates or heretics were obtained (of course) via torture?

Oh, by the way, Landa also claimed to have found evidence of human sacrifice and other idolatrous practices, although none popped up during his Inquisition. I wonder whether they were actually in the basement of a Mayan elote shop.

It would be nice if Landa were the exception, but he’s not. Go look up what happened to the Aztecs, the Inca, and every indigenous tribe in all of the Americas, as well as what happened to Africans dragged over as slaves, before and after freedom. Well, if they lived long enough to be freed.

By the way, people forced into slavery also suffered their own cultural erasure. Whatever name they originally had was ignored, and their owners gave them names that were easy to shout across the fields — mostly one syllable.

Generally, enslaved people did not get last names, except in terms of being defined by their owners. Think of The Handmaid’s Tale names like Offred or Ofjohn. If enslaved people did get last names, they would be in the form of “Smith’s Mary” or the like, only later simplified to Mary Smith.

It wasn’t until after the end of the Civil War and after the United States won that people finally freed from slavery were able to chose their own names. And that is another part of the pure and unadulterated history of the United States.

And… if you’re going to get all butthurt and claim that this is just bashing “white people with good intentions,” let me give you one last reminder.

Note that I’ve mentioned so far the English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese. Other European immigrants didn’t get here until later. Some — largely Scandinavians and a few Germans — got here in the early 18th century, in time to take part in the American Revolution.

But others — mainly Germans in general, Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, anybody Jewish, and anybody Asian, didn’t come here until later, and while only one of those groups is not white, every one of them faced discrimination as well from all those WASPS who landed on Plymouth Rock (allegedly) and swept America clean of “undesirables” with their broom of self-righteousness.

In turns, Irish, Italian, Polish, Slavic, Russian, Jewish and other non-Northern European immigrants, while ostensibly white, were considered “less than,” but each group eventually managed to melt into the pot of America, with the Irish arguably being the most successful because, face it, my people can charm the pants off of anyone and have a propensity to pump out babies.

Seriously — if you test your DNA, no matter what ethnicity you think you are, you probably have some Irish in you. If you don’t… well, I can arrange it.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist that old joke.

But here’s the point: Bad people destroy the cultures of others wholesale, like Landa did to the Maya, like Hitler did with book-burning, like the U.S. has tried to do with Native languages, and so on.

And it’s a phenomenon as old as history. But it’s still going on. Now, if any of the above makes you feel like you’re picked on as a white person… good. Because none of it is intended that way. Rather, what it’s meant to do it give a fuller and truer version of history that might diverge a little bit from the way you learned it long ago. From white people. Who whitewashed it.

You may have heard the term “Critical Race Theory” bandied about as the “NEXT BIG THING TO FEAR!” But it’s not. It’s just basically the true history you were never taught.

Don’t worry. It can’t hurt you and we don’t blame you. Hell, I know for a fact that I have ancestors who were decidedly anti-slavery and moved half-way across the country to try to keep a new territory from adopting it. But I also have ancestors who stayed in the South and one of them founded their own county for the express purpose of perpetuating slavery in it.

So… each of us is a mix of some good, and some evil, and a bunch of ancestors — but if you trace our DNA back up far enough, there is only one truth.

We are all related. Somewhere, we have a common ancestor. Any other divisions or separations are imaginary. Otherwise, we are all cousins — and to wipe out one group or their culture is, really, to wipe out all of them.

Image source: Steve Bridger, “Mani, Yucatan,” site of the auto de fé of 1562. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Image used unchanged.

Babylonian math and modern addition

Babylonians, who were very early astronomers, inherited a rather interesting counting system from the Sumerians, one that worked in Base 60, if you can believe it. It was basically derived from counting each of the segments of the fingers on one hand, not including the thumb (3 x 4) and then using all five fingers on the other hand to count each set of 12. Five times 12, of course, equals 60.

60 is a very useful number because it has so many factors: 1 through 6, then 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It also has common factors with 8 (2 and 4) and 9 (3), and can easily create integer fractions with multiples of 5 and 10. For example, 45/60 reduces very easily. First, divide both by 5 to get 9/12, then divide both by 3 to get 3/4. It works just as easily in reverse — 60/45, 12/9, 4/3 which equals 1 1/3.

If you’re ahead of me, then you’ve already realized a very important place where we use 60 a lot.

Now, I would argue that the system is actually Base 12 counted in groups of 5, but the outcome is rather interesting, because to this day it forms the basis for some pretty basic things: Euclidean geometry and telling time.

A minute has 60 seconds and an hour has 60 minutes, of course. A circle has 360 degrees, which is 60 times 6. It’s a fortunate coincidence that an Earth year worked out to be so close to that in number of days — 365.25. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we add one day every four years, that’s the reason why. Our 365 day calendar loses a full day in that time, and we put it back by tacking it onto the end of February.

I still think that it was more Base 12 times 5, because there are some significant dozens that pop up, again thanks to the Babylonians. There are a dozen constellations in the zodiac, each one taking up 30 degrees of sky, giving us 12 months.

Of course, you can’t write “12” in Base 12 — those digits actually denote what would be 14 in Base 10. So how do you get around there only being 10 digits if you want to write in bigger bases?

If you’ve done any kind of coding or even HTML, you’re probably familiar with the hexadecimal system, which is Base 16. There, the convention was established that once a digit hit nine, the rest would be filled out with letters until you incremented the next digit up. So, once we get to 9 in Base 16, the following digits are A (10), B (11), C (12), D (13), E (14), and F (15). F is followed by 10 (16), and the whole process repeats following the rules I’ve described previously.

Now you might wonder, how did they do single digits in Base 60, and the answer is that the Babylonians didn’t. In fact, they sort of cheated, and if you look at their numbering system, it’s actually done in Base 10. They just stop at 59 before rolling over. They also didn’t have a zero or a concept of it, which made the power of any particular digit a bit ambiguous.

And yet… Babylonians developed a lot of the complex mathematics we know to this day, including algebra, a pretty accurate calculation of the square root of 2, how to figure out compound interest, an apparent early version of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation of π accurate to about four digits, measuring angular distances, and Fourier analysis.

Yeah, not too bad for an ancient civilization that didn’t have internet or smart phones and who wrote all their stuff in clay using sticks, huh? But that is the beauty of the ingenuity of the human mind. We figured out this stuff thousands of years ago and have built upon it ever since. The tricks the Babylonians learned from the Sumerians led in a straight line right to the device you’re reading this on, the method it’s being piped to your eye-holes, the system of satellites or tunnels of fiber optics that more likely than not takes the data from source to destination, and even the way all that data is encoded.

Yay, humans! We do manage to advance, sometimes. The real challenge is continuing to move forward instead of backward, but here’s a clue. Every great advance we have made has been backed up by science. Within our own living memory — that of ourselves, or the still living generations who remember what their parents and grandparents remembered — we went from not being able to fly at all to landing humans on the Moon to launching probes out of our solar system, all of it in under one century.

We have eradicated or mitigated diseases that used to kill ridiculous numbers of people, are reducing fatality rates for other diseases, and are increasing life expectancy, at least when the voice of reason holds sway. For a while, we even made great advances in cleaning up the environment and quite possibly turning the tide back in favor of reversing the damage.

But… the real risk is that we do start moving backward, and that always happens when the powers that be ignore science and replace it with ignorance and superstition, or ignore the advances of one group because they’re part of “them,” not “us.”

To quote Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” And when an empire falls, it isn’t always possible for it to spread its knowledge. What Babylon discovered was lost and found many times, to the point that aspects of it weren’t found again until the time of the ancient Greeks or the Muslims, or the Renaissance.

In order, and only in terms of math, those cultures gave us geometry; algebra and the concept of zero; and optics and physics — an incomplete list in every case. European culture didn’t give us much in the way of science between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, while the Muslim world was flourishing in all of the parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe that it had conquered, along with preserving and advancing all of that science and math from fallen old-world civilizations.

Yeah, for some funny reason back then, their religion supported science. Meanwhile, in other places a certain religion didn’t, and the era was called the Dark Ages. That eventually flipped and the tide turned in Europe beginning in the 16th century. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly why every college course in “modern” history begins at 1500 C.E.

Sadly, the prologue to this is the Italian war criminal Cristobal Colón convincing the Spanish religious fanatics Fernando y Isabel to finance his genocidal expedition originally intended to sail west to India but unfortunately finding some islands next to a continent in the way, on which he raped, pillaged, and slaughtered people for his own amusement. Or, in other words, the Dark Ages didn’t end until Colón and those Spanish rulers were dead and buried, meaning January 23, 1516, when they fed the last of them, Fernando, to the worms.

Oh, except that humans continued to be shitty as they sailed west even as science back home advanced. Dammit. And that’s been the back and forth since forever. What we really need are more people committed to the “Forth!” while determined to stop the “Back!”

Or, at the very least, push the science forward, push the bullshit back.