If a time machine dropped you into the Americas in 1491, what would you find? A vast, empty continent roamed by small bands of people, fighting to survive? No way! Both North and South America before the arrival of Columbus played host to very large urban civilizations, powerful militaries, huge agricultural economies, and an impressive diversity of religions, languages and art styles. Amazing feats of engineering were the norm in this world as people from Tierra Del Fuego to Baffin Bay carved out their lifestyles in wildly different ecological regions. You might have seen evidence of this ingenuity in things like the Igloo, or the Tipi, but have you ever heard of the Inka Roads, or the floating city of Tenochtitlan? Whether they were living in a huge empire or a small tribal nation, Native American people had to be creative in the ways they stored, spread, and communicated the information that each group needed to survive. Let’s examine some Native American communication techniques that go WAY beyond the stereotypical “smoke signals!”
Despite 770,000 square miles of terrain that encompassed the highest, snowy Andes, the Amazon rainforest, Pacific Ocean beaches and several fierce deserts, the massive 12 million strong Inca Empire innovated one of the most rapid and efficient messaging systems in the premodern world! It relied on a specially trained team of expert marathon runners to relay the messages that were vital to the management of the huge empire. Chaskis were elite endurance athletes trained from childhood to run fast on some of the toughest high-altitude terrain on earth. Chaskis passed messages anywhere along 25,000 miles of specially designed Inca Roads.
They ran several miles at a sprint until they reached the next Chaski station. There they would pass the message and the next runner would be off like the wind. Chaskis took their job very seriously and knew that if they were found to pass an incorrect message, they would be thrown off a cliff. Running their non-stop, high speed relay race, they could pass a message from Ecuador to Chile in one week, an amazingly fast result for the world before electronic communication!
Large-scale empires like the Inca needed to know exactly what was happening in every corner of their massive territory and had the resources to train and support thousands of Chaskis for all their communication needs. But what about smaller scale societies, especially nomadic ones that moved around a lot? Sometimes there is a stereotype that small scale groups like the Natives of the North American Plains were in such a struggle for survival that they did not have time for things like technology, history, and philosophy, but this is not true. The Sioux had a system of recording and communicating their history that suited their needs perfectly: The Winter Count.
In the Sioux world, years were not counted from Dec.-Jan. but measured from first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall. At the end of the year, elders met to decide what was the most important event of the year past; that event would forever name and define the year. A special member of the group would design a pictograph representing the event and add it to a special hide that showed each year’s pictographs in succession. Some of these Winter Count hides ran over 100 years and could be constantly renewed by painting on fresh hide when the old one decayed. The keeper of the Winter Count also served as the group’s historian, using the winter count to tell stories of what happened each year, keeping the group connected to their past and able to learn more about themselves for the future. The Winter Count hide itself was easily portable and made of simple materials, making it a perfect technological fit for the highly mobile the Plains Natives.