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We built this city….

6 June 2013

As has been suggested in recent years, the Americas were a much more sophisticated and densely populated place prior to 1492 than we realized even a few years ago. What is now Mexico likely had a population of around 25,000,000 (a number it didn’t reach again until the mid 20th century). If the “high counters” (those who argue the Americas were densely populated before European diseases reached the continent) are right, the Mexican population was already in steep decline even before Cortés arrived. Estimates range from 2 to 10 million in 1521… which would have meant a massive decline in population was already underway by the time an unnamed Moor was blamed for all time for coming ashore with Panfilo de Narváez in 1520 carrying the smallpox virus. The result being that Mexico’s population declined still further, anywhere from 75 to 90 percent by 1600.

While Mexico was probably more densely populated than many parts of the Americas (and still is), what was true there was true throughout much of the hemisphere.

The upshot of this massive loss was that when the colonial newcomers “discovered” the remains of the past, they ignored the obvious conclusion that the people around them were survivors of a holocaust in “reduced circumstances” and instead, read into them not the story of their new land, but of their own history.

Matthew Gildner, an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Washington and Lee University, writes the fascinating story of an obsession to fit the artifacts into a European story-line, and a story that, in the end, led to another holocaust.

Andean Atlantis: Race, Science and the Nazi Occult in Bolivia (The Appendix: a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history, April 2013 – Vol. 1 No. 2)

Classicists have long maintained that Atlantis was a fable that the ancient philosopher invented to warn of the arrogance of power. Over the centuries, however, Plato’s legend acquired an air of truth. During the Renaissance, tales of Atlantis circulated in the European imagination, borne on Humanist inquiry and the discovery of the Americas. Sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers, from Bartolomé de las Casas to Francisco López de Gómara, drew parallels between the New World and Plato’s Lost City, as did Francis Bacon and Thomas Moore of Great Britain. For French scholars who believed that humans had multiple origins, Atlantis evidenced the existence of man before Adam.


But it was during the late nineteenth century that interest in the fabled Lost City exploded. A Minnesota politician and amateur antiquarian named Ignatius Donnelly is widely credited for the Atlantis revival. In 1882, his bestseller, Atlantis: The Antediluvial World, didn’t just argue that Plato’s Atlantis existed; it claimed that Atlantis had shaped other ancient cultures, from the Maya to the Egyptians. Popular and scientific interest in Atlantis flourished. The Royal Geographic Society of London and the U.S. National Geographic Society were soon sponsoring research on the lost city’s location and funding quixotic and, at times, unnecessarily deadly expeditions.

It’s often overlooked that this “Atlantis revival” coincided with the apogee of polygenesis, one of the fundamental assumptions of scientific racism. Polygenesis was an alternative theory of evolution that rejected the common origins of humans, a belief rooted in Christian creationism and sustained by Darwinian evolution. Polygenists divided humans into separate biological species, or races, that each originated and evolved independently. Races were classified according to innate, inheritable physical attributes—that is, not just skin color, but cranial capacity.

Locating those origins, however, was more complicated. If darker skinned peoples originated in Africa, as polygenists had long assumed, the where did the lighter-skinned peoples come from?

Atlantis would provide nineteenth-century polygenists with their own private Garden of Eden—an idea that appealed especially to Bolivia’s creole, or European-descendant, elite. Since securing their independence from Spain in 1825, they governed—often precariously—the most indigenous country in the hemisphere. Polygenesis provided irrefutable scientific proof of their biological difference and social superiority over native Andean peoples. And deployed alongside the Atlantis myth, it allowed them to claim Tiwanaku as a source of creole heritage.

(With even Heinrich Himmler mixed up in this, it’s a bizarre tale, well told and fascinating to read)

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