Not All Native History Is "Ancient"

Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, early modern leader—not "ancient"
(actor Cristian Esquivel, source)
The Aztec Empire—was it "ancient"?

I hope your answer is no, because no empire formed less than 600 years ago qualifies as an "ancient" one. If it does, I guess we need to start calling Leonardo da Vinci an "ancient" artist and scientist.

(Leonardo's life, by the way, was fully contemporaneous to that of the Aztec Empire, and he died the same year that Cortés landed in Mexico.)

On two occasions this week, I saw the word "ancient" used in reference to indigenous histories that are anything but. The first example was what you just read: I saw someone refer to the Aztecs as "ancient" and it just made my head spin.

In fact, there's been a rather popular fact spread around the internet lately and featured in all sorts of memes and lists of facts that will "blow your mind." Here's the most precise version I could find:

And it's true! Oxford very much predates the Aztec Empire—but why would this simple fact (obvious to anyone who's made a cursory study of both English and Mexican history) blow anyone's mind? Is it because people associate European universities with modernity, and indigenous empires with antiquity? Why would they, when that idea is so demonstrably false?

Believe it or not, the second example I saw of indigenous history described as "ancient" was even more ridiculous. This article is nearly two years old, but I never saw it before this week—"Looking for clues to an ancient massacre in the Aleutians." When I first saw the headline, I figured there must have been an archaeological find with bodies and weapons indicating violence from thousands of years ago. There are sites like that in Alaska, such as this one in Yup'ik territory.

Russians and Aleuts—not ancient history (source)
On opening the article, however, I was sorely disappointed: It addresses the massacre of Aleuts by Russians in the 1760s, less than 250 years ago. If that's "ancient," then apparently George Washington is now ancient. (He was in his 30s in the 1760s.) I don't know if I've ever seen so much stupidity in a headline before.

I will note, however, that the word "ancient" is used only in the headline, and it's probably not the author's fault. I don't know whether someone at the Alaska Dispatch News is to blame, or someone at the Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where the article was originally published. Still, I can't imagine how anyone with an education or a basic familiarity with the English language could conflate anything in the 18th century with the "ancient."

The use of the word "ancient" in reference to history is not subjective or open to any sort of interpretation. You can quibble a little about the dates, but the traditional and long-enduring division of European or "Western" history into the ancient, medieval, and modern is clear: Ancient history ends with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Medieval history stretches between Rome and the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—the "rebirth" of ancient knowledge (a fallacy, but a romantic one)—which began the early modern era. The division between "early modern" and "modern" is more tenuous, but irrelevant to this discussion.

With that clear, traditional division that virtually everyone should be aware of, there is no way that an indigenous empire of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or a massacre in the eighteenth should possibly qualify as "ancient." To be sure, a distinction between ancient and medieval history is less obvious in the Americas than in Europe; depending on the region, scholars divide history between periods named "classical," "postclassical," and so on. Nevertheless, we know of many different ancient peoples in American history, from the ancestral Puebloans (previously called "Anasazi"), to the Olmecs, to the Teotihuacanos (whose city fell, it seems, just a century after Rome).

Calling all American history before the arrival of Europeans "ancient" isn't just intellectually lazy, but insulting. There are enormous differences between the indigenous histories of thousands of years ago and those of just several hundred years ago, leading up to the Columbian Exchange and the Great Death.

Just as America's indigenous cultures are incredibly diverse, so too are their histories. If someone thinks they're all the same and could be categorized under the same historical period, they need to get an education.