Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/430

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416
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
LITERARY NOTICES.

The Discovery of America. By John Fiske. Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892. In two volumes.

Prof. Fiske opens his subject with a discussion of the question of the grade of culture reached by the inhabitants of the American continent at the time of the discovery. The gorgeous accounts given by the Spaniards of the civilization of Mexico and Peru have survived until quite recent times, not only in the popular imagination, but in the writings of sober-minded authors. Careful research has, however, dissipated these earlier conceptions of American culture and put it in the right relation to the condition of advancement reached by the Old World peoples. Prof. Fiske gives the chief credit to the clearing up of this question to the late Lewis Morgan, whose generalizations he in the main accepts. According to Mr. Morgan's classification, the three well-marked stages in culture are savagery, barbarism, and civilization, the dividing line between the first two being the invention of pottery, and that between barbarism and civilization the invention of the alphabet.

According to this classification, none of the American peoples at the time of the voyage of Columbus had reached a higher stage of culture than the middle status of barbarism. In the Old World this stage of culture was marked by the domestication of animals other than the dog, but nowhere in America outside of Peru were there any domesticated animals except the dog, and in the latter those of the Old World were unknown. The social development reached by the aboriginal American was in keeping with that in the arts. The Spaniards, with their notions of society derived from mediæval Europe, naturally interpreted the social arrangements they found in terms of their experience, but nowhere on the American continent, save in Peru, was there anything approaching a nation. The organization of the Aztecs in Mexico was similar to that of the more advanced Indians to the north — viz., that of the clan. Montezuma, whom the Spaniards mistook for a king, was simply the chief of the clan. The living was communal in structures the property of the clan, and there was no development of the idea of private property except in things purely personal. Peru had passed beyond this stage, and had acquired the position of a rudimentary empire, but in some things was less advanced than Mexico. Neither country had yet acquired the art of smelting iron, and between both and the beginnings of civilization there lay the vast tract which terminates with the invention of the phonetic alphabet.

Prof. Fiske follows his survey of the inhabitants of the American continent by a discussion of the visits of the Northmen to the American coast, and then takes up the relations of Europe with the East, which completes his survey of the subject, preliminary to the memorable voyage of Columbus. In his chapter on pre-Columbian voyages he sums up what is known of the voyages of the Northmen. Far from being mythical, these voyages were very real. These northern seamen settled Iceland, and from there spread over to Greenland, where two settlements were made which lasted for four hundred years. From these settlements voyages were made down the American coast as far south probably as Massachusetts. An attempt was made to found a settlement in Vinland, which was the name they gave to a part of the coast visited, but this came to no result, and they did nothing beyond visiting the place to cut timber. None of these voyages did anything toward altering the relations of the Eastern and Western world. The two streams of life flowed on as they had for centuries, unknown to each other. It was not until the epoch-making voyage of Columbus and those who followed after that the two worlds were brought into contact. Prof. Fiske, therefore, rightly considers that the voyages of the Northmen were in no sense anticipations of Columbus.

In order to understand the meaning of the voyage of Columbus, we must understand the economical condition of the Europe of the fifteenth century and its relation to the East — or Cathay, as it was termed. We must also, as Prof. Fiske insists, banish from our minds the modern map, and try to put ourselves in the place of the people of that time. A rich trade had for some centuries been carried on between Europe and the East, in spices, gums, and fine fabrics. Genoa and Venice were rival centers of this trade, and had each overland routes to the