11. The Supposed Silence of the Historical Record
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11 The Supposed Silence of the His­ tori­ cal Record In this distracted globe. . . . I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past. —William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1:5, 1599–1601 While archaeologists require physical remains as evidence, for historians the written record is the evidence. It is through study of documents that standard history is written. Owing to a dearth of such records, many historians give up on pre-­ Columbian America, ignoring oral traditions, archaeology, and geographic distributions as avenues for reconstructing the past. According to the Swedo-­ Finnish artist and historian of ships Björn Landström, “The Egyptians and, even more so, the Phoenicians were good mariners, and their ships were seaworthy enough to have taken them over the seas with the trade winds. But even if they did actually cross the ocean, there is no record that any of them returned to tell the tale, and as long as we have no written records or other [concrete] forms of evidence, that possibility has no place in the history of exploration.”1 As I once heard a Navajo woman say to a historian skeptical of oral tradition: “You historians think that if it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.” Among students of history, a common if naive assertion is: If there had been ancient ocean crossings, these would be reflected in the his­ tori­ cal record, and that record is silent. The assumption is that anything as dramatic and as potentially important as crossing an uncharted ocean and coming upon a new, exotic, populated, and resource-­ rich continent would have received wide notice back home or would at least have been recorded. Reality is more complicated. One must indeed acknowledge that very little in the way of unequivocal written records bearing on pre-­ Columbian contacts has turned up so far, but there are a number of reasons why this should not be seen as astonishing even if we posit that many such voyages took place. First of all, historians have hardly yet mined all the extant written records that might have a bearing on the issue at hand. Places such as the General Archive of the Indies in Seville and the Vatican Library in Rome continue to hold great quantities of material as yet unstudied by modern scholars. Supposed Silence of the Historical Record / 121 Nonexistent, Unreadable, and Unrevealing Records Obviously, no written record can be expected for nonliterate societies, many of which are potential source areas for contacts. Equally obviously, one-­ way accidental , missionary, colonizing, or other voyages would leave no records, in their areas of origin, of overseas disembarkations. Beyond this, important contact involving return voyages can and has taken place without leaving any surviving written record, even in cases of quite literate cultures. The fact that there were contacts among ancient Greece, India, and China is widely accepted (on the basis of art and archaeology), despite the near absence of his­ tori­ cal accounts. Indeed, one may doubt that there would remain any record of the famous and influential thirteenth-­ century travels of the Venetian Marco Polo and his relatives had Polo not been captured and incarcerated by the Genoese upon his return to Italy from China, dictating his Travels to his fellow prisoner Rustichello, who, fortuitously, was a writer, while languishing in jail with nothing else to do. Of the fifteenth-­ century “discoverer” of continental North America John Cabot, nothing he may have written down survives; even his burial place is unknown. As mentioned, in ancient times most parts of the world were illiterate or essentially so, and no written records are expectable. In some other areas (for example , Indianized South­ east Asia), where writing was practiced, ability to use it was not widespread and it was employed in restricted ways, so that very little was produced and what was produced is of limited value for our purposes. Then, it is the case that we cannot yet (and may never) read some writings. For example, little progress has been made on deciphering Etruscan inscriptions, which use the Greek alphabet to convey an unknown language, and the important Indus Valley script remains unreadable. Mayan writing was deciphered only during the late twentieth century, and much remains to be read. The Years Take Their Toll: Deterioration of Records Written documents of yesteryear have had a low rate of survival, a consequence of the many destructive forces that may act upon archaeological and his­ tori­ cal materials. One...