I recorded this TED talk last Thursday. The manuscript is below. The video will be here too as soon as I get it. Enjoy!

The way we study of international politics at universities has for far too long been dominated by Western theories and concepts. The academic study of international relations — often abbreviated as “IR” — has a pro-Western bias.

Understandably, people elsewhere in the world are not satisfied with this. This is particularly true for quickly developing countries with a lot of self-confidence — such as China, but people in India, Brazil and even Turkey aren’t happy either. They have their own interests and perspectives — and they want the study of international relations to reflect this fact. What they are demanding is a “non-Western IR theory.”

But it is not at all clear what a non-Western IR theory might be. As a result, even critics continue, despite themselves, to rely on the assumptions of the existing discipline. So what indeed is the alternative? This is what I want to talk about. My suggestion is that we have to be far more radical. If we want an IR theory which is truly non-Western, we must reject the basic assumptions of the Western way of thinking about world politics.

So what is Western IR theory?

So, what are these assumptions? Well, international relations, Western IR scholar tell us, is more than anything the study of states and their relationships. A state is a territorial entity, with borders around it that determine who belongs and who doesn’t. The people who are included constitute a political community — often referred to as a “nation” — on whose behalf the state acts.

States, say Western IR scholars, are “sovereign,” meaning that they have a right to self-determination; they alone can determine their laws, policies and actions. Yet since the world consists of many sovereign states, each one must consider what the others are up to. Each state participates in a system of states.

But this is also the problem. Since all states are sovereign, no one can tell them what to do. Every state is in charge of itself, but no one is in charge of the system as a whole. Western IR scholars call this “anarchy.” The international system is “anarchic,” and this is why wars are common and peace is so difficult to achieve.

Before colonialism

Today there is only one international system — the Western system. All countries in the world are members of it, and they all resemble each other — they have the same kinds of foreign ministries, national anthems, flags, seats in the United Nations, and so on.

But the world did not always look like this. There was not always only one international system. Instead there have been many different systems in different parts of the world — and often they have existed side by side. International politics was ruled by a different logic in East Asia at the time of the Chinese Empire; in West Africa at the time of the Yoruba city-states; in Central America at the time of the Mayas, and so on. These non-Western alternatives had different conceptions of sovereignty, of territory, borders and political community. That is, they worked in quite non-Western ways.

How the Western system spread

So how did the Western international system come to replace all the others? Basically, it was a result of European colonialism in the nineteenth-century. But that can’t be right because colonialism is the very opposite of sovereignty. A colonized people has no self-determination.

Rather, the logic of the Western system spread to the rest of the world as a result of the process of decolonization. This happened above all in the decades after World War Two. Everywhere native politicians appeared who insisted that their particular colony should become a state just like the European states, and that they were the ones to lead them.

At the time, many Europeans worried about the prospect of a world filled with a lot of independent, perhaps unruly, non-Western entities. Yet what the native politicians told them was reassuring. The native leaders had often gone to school in Europe, they spoke European languages, and they could be trusted as “one of us.” True, their rhetoric often sounded anti-Western, but in practice they were in cahoots with their former colonial masters. They grabbed power for themselves while promising to perpetuate the Western model of the state — and thereby the Western international system.

State- and nation-building

As soon as the native politicians were in control there was no going back. From now on the political struggles concerned who should control the sovereign state, but the notion of sovereign statehood itself was no longer possible to question.

The only problem was that the nation-states which the native leaders were supposed to lead in most cases did not exist. There were “tribes” and “clans” and “nomadic peoples,” but they never lived neatly within the borders of the European maps which the independent states had inherited. Instead, what did not exist should now be constructed. Everywhere states and nations were going to be “built.” Exactly how this was to be be done was never quite clear, but international agencies and their experts were ready to help out. For well over fifty years now, the non-Western world has been engaged in desperate attempts at “state- and nation-building.”

Let’s not forget how preposterous this is! The study of international relations is supposed to be a science, but this is not a science. The world is not studied, but instead rearranged so as to fit with Western preconceptions. If there is a mismatch between the two, it is always reality, not the preconceptions, which is at fault. This is not an attempt to study the world as much as a way to transform it. The world is to be recreated in West’s image.

Failed states, and successful

Today we often hear references to “failed states.” A failed state is a country which never managed to construct a viable state and a unified nation. It is a country, that is, which has failed to live up to Western standards.

But why on earth should a non-Western country be able to successfully emulate a Western one? The task is difficult enough under the best of circumstances, but impossible if the population is destitute, the country is rich in natural resources, and power belongs to the warlords with the biggest guns. Non-Westerners just aren’t very good at being Westerners. Westerners, let’s face it, are so much better at it.

But there were or course some successful cases too — like Israel, Turkey and China. They became powerful, and they created nations for themselves, which were no less viable than their European counterparts. In each case, however, a high price was paid for their success. In the struggle for statehood, other political entities were wiped out, peoples were displaced and genocides committed. Thus there is today a Turkey but no Kurdistan, an Israel but no Palestine, a China but no independent Uighuristan or Tibet.

And yet the losers in these struggles did not just go away. They have continued to insist on their right to self-determination. The conflicts caused in this way have lasted for decades — and it looks like they will continue.

The problem

So this is the problem: as long as you make yourself free on someone else’s terms, you will never truly be free. Dependency will be built into the system from the very start. Under these circumstances you will, if you’re successful, only become a copy of the model which has been given to you — and, if you fail, your society will completely collapse.

In order to be truly independent, in other words, we must start from different assumptions. We must reject the logic of the Western international system. This, I would suggest, is what a non-Western IR theory should be about.

Much needs to be said about this of course, and I can say very little here. But let me provide a few suggestions. For inspiration, we can turn to history, but we can also study the present — and we can look to the future.

Learning from history: the glory of the Ottomans

Compare the disaster which is the contemporary Middle East with the international system which preceded it — the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire consisted of a multitude of very different peoples, each ruled by its own respective civil laws. The Ottoman Empire was both more pluralistic and less repressive than the countries in today’s Middle East.

Imagine a world in which the Ottoman Empire was not abolished in 1923, or a world in which a political structure such as the Ottoman Empire could be recreated. Here people of different ethnicities would be able to share the same political space; and everyone would get to live in the country of their imagination. A Jew could easily imagine herself living in Israel, while her Palestinian neighbor could imagine himself living in Palestine. And some, no doubt, would identify themselves as Ottoman. Jewish culture would still flourish in Cairo and Baghdad; and there would be lots of Greeks in Constantinople and in Smyrna.

Present: Failed states show the way

But the present has much to teach us too. Here we should let the “failed states” show the way. By understanding why states “fail,” we can learn more about alternative ways of organizing a society.

Somalia is everyone’s favorite example of a “failed state,” yet the country has viable nomadic traditions which continue to provide a measure of order, justice and security even in the absence of a state. Rather than fixing Somalia, in other words, perhaps it is these institutions that should be strengthened and improved?

This suggestion goes against the well-established prejudice which says that nomads represent a prior, and thereby inferior, stage in human history, one that inevitably must disappear. But what if this is not the case? After all, the lives of most of us are daily becoming more, not less, nomadic. Pushed and pulled by the forces of global capitalism, we too are increasing required to move around in order to make a living for ourselves.

As a result, new kinds of political institutions are required — political institutions which we can take with us as we move around. By learning more about nomadic societies, the nomads of the past can provide advice to the nomads of the future.

Future: globalization and the failed states of Europe

State failures do not only happen in Africa; they happen in Europe too. Indeed, the European Union is premised on state failure. The aim of the EU, as it originally was conceived, was to deal with the failure of European states to live in peace with each other. State sovereignty, as the world wars had demonstrated, was a disaster, and the EU was designed to limit and control it.

More recently, the challenges posed by globalization have provided an additional rationale. The trans-border flow of ideas, goods, people, money, drugs and pollution means that states no longer can control their borders, run their economies autonomously, or shield their citizens from outside threats. States are not about to disappear to be sure, but sovereignty is in rapid decline.

Under these circumstances, sovereignty must be pooled — shared between states. Such sovereignty-pooling is what the EU is about. It is because European states once again have failed that the EU is needed.

In fact, the EU too can be understood as a return to an earlier form of political organization. The international system of the European Middle Ages was not made up of sovereign states after all, but of political entities of many different kinds united in a continent-wide community. By putting an end to the age of the sovereign state, the EU constitutes a return to the normal, and far more viable, way of organizing international relations.


As should be obvious, a non-Western IR theory is not only a science, but it is a political project too. This may sound alarming if you believe in the objectivity and the neutrality of science. But then again Western IR theory was a political project too — and it was a disaster! A non-Western IR is an attempt to try something different. The day when we think of international relations in these terms, we will be living in a better, more peaceful, world.

It was always obvious that I was going to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Diane, my wife, felt the same way. I am in Turkey to work, but also to learn things, and Islam is one of the things I want to learn more about. Ramadan provides a unique way to acquire this knowledge — not by reading books or by making observations, but by directly participating in a different way of life. Since you are learning with your body, you do not even have to know the language! After all, the instructions are pretty straight-forward: you eat early in the morning, refrain from food and water all day, and then totally stuff yourself after sundown. All my colleagues at work were doing it, all my students were doing it too, of course I had to join in!

I’m not a religious person and I’m certainly not a “spiritual seeker” (although both of my grandfathers were vicars in the Church of Sweden). However, I am very interested in what people do and why they do it. In particular, I’m interested in behavior that is difficult to explain in rational, means-ends, terms. In the Western tradition, rational thinking has too often been privileged at the expense of bodily practices, and as a result we have become increasingly opaque to ourselves. Moreover, once religion was defined mainly as a matter of beliefs, Christianity became vulnerable to attacks from secular society. Not surprisingly, in today’s Sweden there are very few religious believers. But Islam is different. Islam seems to me to be more about practices than about beliefs. Or rather, practices and beliefs may be the same thing — both founded in a human being not subject to Cartesian divisions between a rational mind and an irrational body.

So what happens when a quarter of the world’s population decide to synchronize their bodies and share the experience of going without food?

Sahur, for me, was right from the beginning a matter of oatmeal porridge. Oatmeal is the food that kept peasants working long hours in the fields back in agricultural Sweden. A gigantic bowl of porridge at 3.30 AM, topped off with a piece of chocolate, almost felt like cheating. No reason to feel hungry. In fact, “fasting” is surely something of a misnomer. It’s really more a matter of deferring one’s meals. I’m not sure I was eating less. I might have eaten more.

Although I never actually felt hungry, fasting gave a particular coloring to the hours after, say, 5 PM. It might best be described as a certain mellow feeling. The world suddenly slows down and you just want to sit still in one place. No reason to really do anything; not even play with your phone; yet you are pretty content. Surely GDP in the Muslim world must drop off during Ramadan. But just as surely, since people who fast are removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they are returned to their bodies and to their selves. The result is a sense of calm — perhaps it could even be called “serenity.”

But instead of saying that people are returned to themselves, it might be better to say that they are returned to their communities. I noticed something strange during those mellow late-afternoon hours. We always used to watch Deutsche Welle before dinner. DW broadcasts in English and it is a very reasonable alternative to all those blaring Anglo-Saxon news channels. Yet once Ramadan started we stopped watching DW too. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but it could also have been that fasting had lessened my connection to the German TV station and its non-fasting newsreaders. Their news stories suddenly seemed less relevant to me. I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn.

Instead we watched the iftar countdown on TRT. I love the way the fast-breaking schedule rolls by on the TV screen and one city after another suddenly lights up in red. We were counting the minutes, and people all over Turkey, and the entire Muslim world, were counting the minutes too. It was as exciting as New Year’s Eve, but during Ramadan every day is New Year’s Eve! “45 minutes to go now.” “Too long! I’m hungry!” “What are we going to do?” “Let’s talk about something.” Only 22 minutes left. Suddenly only 8. “Where are the dates? Surely we did not forget to buy dates?”

It is nice to share this experience with people you know, but it is somehow even better to share it with strangers. All religions know that eating together is a powerful way to build a sense of community. Christians have their “last supper” after all, and not even Swedish Lutherans, in their excessive rationalism, have managed to abolish “the communion.” Yet it is a special experience to eat together with strangers after a day of fasting. You look at the people seated at the other tables in the restaurant, and although you know nothing whatsoever about them, you share an intimate sensation in your stomach. That is, the sense of community does not have to be visualized or imagined; it is founded on sheer physiology. Then, after the müezzin‘s call, and for about 15 minutes, everyone falls silent and focuses on eating. And when we are done, we look at each other again, and again we know exactly what the others are feeling. We are satisfied now. Happy and content. Today too we got to eat our fill.

Rima, my daughter, put it best. “It is all about gratitude,” she said. “When you finally get to eat, you feel grateful. You are grateful to the person who cooked the food, and grateful to the world that provided you with it.” In modern society it is rare to be grateful for food. We always eat enough — in fact we often eat too much. In modern society we take everything for granted and gratefulness is an uncommon emotion. Yet during Ramadan we are taught to be grateful every evening for a whole month. And perhaps, when our stomachs finally are full, we can spare a thought for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Fasting also taught me much about the political divisions, and the culture wars, of today’s Turkey. A week into Ramadan, I attended a workshop organized by my department and the IR department at Bilkent University. Since Bilkent was footing much of the bill, they were in charge of the schedule. Consequently the sessions started at 9 AM, which is way too early for someone who likes to sleep after sahur, and there were “lunch-breaks” in the middle of the day. But OK, there were many international visitors invited, and the Bilkent people may have been reluctant to appear as too “ethnic” in front of the foreigners. In any case, us in the Ibn Haldun contingent were just sort of standing around in the court yard of our madrasa while the others were eating. But it felt great. Very visibly, I found myself on one of the sides — on the right side — of the political and cultural gap which divides Turkey. That in a sense was when I finally joined the faculty of Ibn Haldun University.

I was on the right side again when I was showing my sister — visiting Turkey for a few days  — the sights in the center of Istanbul. Around Taksim Square in particular there are always bouncers who come up to you with a menu and questions of “Where are you from, sir?” “What would you like to eat, sir?” But the assaults always stopped when I informed the assailants that “Ben orucum.” Instead of pestering us, many started congratulating me, shaking my hand. “Maşallah! Maşallah!

Yes, I do realize that I have a very romantic — possibly an “Orientalist” — understanding of Muslim society. I always wanted to be someone different than myself, someone different than a Swede.

And yet, the whole Ramadan project came apart both suddenly and prematurely. We made the great mistake of going on a mini-vacation to the Aegean coast. That part of Turkey is not like Başakşehir. It is not like Başakşehir at all. In fact, it might as well be a different country. Where we were staying, people were wearing swim suits not only on the beach, but in the streets, and they were not only eating lunch, but they had beers to go with it. And even more surprisingly, our hotel did not even bother with sahur. We complained at the front-desk, but when asked, we had to admit that we were not Muslim. “So why are you fasting?” Yes indeed, why were we fasting? Once again I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn. Being a secular European comes easily to me, but that’s not why I am in Turkey.

At the same time, I feel sorry for people in secular society. They are missing out on something.All they have are their private lives and their first obligation is always to service their individual desires. That kind of a life is not good enough for a human being. If nothing else, it is really quite boring — our individual lives are rarely as exciting as we pretend. But now of course the fasting has ended for all of us, and we have all rather brutally been returned to our private lives. I miss Ramadan already. And I’m very much looking forward to next year.

Yes, indeed. I finished the book in the end! Or rather, I stopped writing it. A book like this can easily be revised and improved for another 10 years, but I’ve been at it for 5 years already and perhaps now is a good time to stop. I’m actually pretty happy with it. All material, as you know, is available on this web page, but you can also buy it as a regular book when it appears sometime next year.

Erik Ringmar is professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Turkey. He has a PhD in political science from Yale University and taught for 12 years in the Government Department at the London School of Economics, and for seven years as a professor of international politics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, in Shanghai, China.  Erik has written five books and some 50 academic articles exploring the history of international relations both from European and non-European perspectives. His CV is here. His next book will deal with dance and international politics.

Weird somehow how Trump admits to planning war crimes. Should one day make it easy to prosecute him. https://t.co/xajt2jBZSV

"We got him," says Trump, thereby forgetting that #Soleimani was not a rogue individual, but an official pursuing an official policy. He has now been replaced, and the policy will be implemented. Only talks can resolve the conflict. @AJENews https://t.co/SOIfEqIzki #Iran

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Who was Muhammed?

Leader, Mecca 571 — writing — Quran — discussing Muhammed =–

tribes, isahba, hajj, Kabal

Huge traibes — sedentary peoples — trading routes — Quarash — traders in the area —  a lot of Arabs were merchants — trading through Somalia and OMan — Meccas, a lot of gods — no one could imagine that this society would be changed — system of slavery

all rejected everything — new ideas in this movement — isolated from the big families — doing this mvoement secretly for ten years —

consolidation rather thnn exclusivity — exclusiionary vs. inclusionary —  — fulfillment of a prophecy — the coming of the profet — as a promise of the religion — God sends profet — people start to forget — Abrahamic religions — in Islam they believed in the boois — the teachings are the same — they refuse to believe and accept

messangers — why are they always fighting? Bible and Jewish version as destorted versions. Many different books of the Bible —

politics and power — what power brings — the historical narrative that was told- — relioion as the opium of the soul — politics matters and not religion — they looik at the wrong thing —

if there are such a lot

all mankidn — religious project as well — every aspect of your life — Moses — trading with eah other — Christianity– political and social sactivities — plitics was there —

jihad — before Muhammed — the idea of expansion — they did not interfere in the political regime at all — we are loiving these ideas —

dhimmoi — Iran — bring this to whoever wants — come and worship — only if they reufes — ono freedom for paopel — not to let people control twhat they should believe.

look at ti from the point how strong Islam — religious established centers — sedentary centers — easy for Muslims to baese their protectino of the basis of the as well as religious —  religion established wihtin the walls — you could not go around it — Islam as outside the walls of the city — they were eventually very good at — Ibn Haldun — would Muhammed have moved —

capture many areas — Muhammed fighting 10 times — exploited by the Christians — EUrope was not CHristian at this time — they were being welcomes to be Muslims —

the quality of the message — the unity of the religion — universal community — bedoinines — how to civlize them selves —

SUnni and SHia — from religion to political — not a process of succession — somenoe should take the place and the role — individauls survival of the fittest — provided the leadership — there is a political vacuum —

rotate between different groups — Christian — Shia —

the idea of a claiphate — different asgggremment within the comunity — supplement the the leadership — Huyain — there were no procedures —

there was no way to organize — the succession — Abu Bakr —

is this an important — who are these people — the subpower — the power at the top — this more skweded toward a partricular group —

ruling party and the oppositoin in a democracy — ummah told Abu Bakr what to do —

a caliphal international systme — they were qualified — prominent leaders at the time — een at the pfopherts time — the differences appear in the Karbala — first fitna — Omar assinated for that reason — Persian influence — the bigger picture abuot this — angry at the

Karbala — failed, Sunni as important — sahabah, liek a Sunni — for people who lost faith in –Ghana appealing to the northern people — religion for the peopole — the fundamentalist —

the translation movement — created so manyn different cultures in order to get to know one another -=-

from Muhammed’s time — sturing their writings and readings — like scientists — education and the importance the — take informatoin

wilolingly convertedinto Islam — it turns out to the be best way to benefit yourslef — they convert —

translation movement — also benefits — get the kind of message that they were expecting — world of Islam — when the push

caliphate —


how successful it was — civlizing the people — not slowing down — sedendary life-style — the Arabs break down — use politics for religion, not the other way around — 9

johad — India, very different — under pressure all the time — salvation for te

the aninomisty of the smallest difference

not all taht provincial — benefits for Bedouine society — provide benefits for them — the position of Islam they can

Queresh tribes — much more sophisciated — sedentary vs. nomadic tribes — human sacrifices —

complete version of — Abrahamic religion —

Why did they expand?

How were the able to do it?

What is a “caliphate”?

What is “jihad”?

What is the origin of the split between Sunni and Shia?

What is the Islamic “Golden Age”

Why did power move to Cairo?

What can you tell me about Muslim Spain?

Who are the Turks?

How was the Ottoman empire established?

Algeria was invaded by France in 1830 but the country soon proved difficult to govern and the French army was harassed by Arab guerrilla fighters. In 1837 they were forced to conclude a treaty which gave Algerians control of two thirds of their territory. Yet the French ignored the agreement and the following year the war recommenced. Looking for a more effective way to fight the Arabs, general Thomas Robert Bugeaud, the Governor-General of the colony, developed a new method of warfare – known as le système Bugeaud – which he argued was more suitable for African conditions. A main feature of the système was the razzia – the destruction of all resources that supported the lives and livelihoods of the Arab community, their crops, orchards and cattle. Only by declaring war on civilians, Bugeaud argued, and by terrorizing and starving them, could the enemy be subdued. Yet, he insisted, there was nothing immoral about such methods. After all, France’s aim was to civilize the Africans. “Gentlemen,” as he explained to the parliament in Paris, “war is not made philanthropically; he who wills the end wills the means.”

Other European powers met with similar resistance. The British had to fight no fewer than five wars against the Asante, three wars in Afghanistan and Burma, and two opium wars in China. The French fought two wars in Dahomey and the Germans were fiercely resisted by the Herero of southwestern Africa. The problem in all cases was that the enemies were far away, the European forces actually quite small, and that it consequently was difficult to administer the lands to which they laid claims. Even if one expedition was successful, the natives soon reasserted themselves, and the European had to come back for a second expedition, and occasionally for several more. Colonial wars were not at all like wars in Europe, the Europeans concluded; they required tactics suitable to local conditions.

What settled these wars in the end was not military superiority as much as the ability to strike terror in the local population. Colonial warfare should have “pedagogical aims.” You should strike so hard and in such a devastating fashion that no one dared to resist. The système Bugeaud was an example of such state-sponsored terrorism, and it eventually proved effective. One by one the Algerian guerrilla fighters were killed or captured and in 1843 their independent state collapsed.


External links:

Weird somehow how Trump admits to planning war crimes. Should one day make it easy to prosecute him. https://t.co/xajt2jBZSV

"We got him," says Trump, thereby forgetting that #Soleimani was not a rogue individual, but an official pursuing an official policy. He has now been replaced, and the policy will be implemented. Only talks can resolve the conflict. @AJENews https://t.co/SOIfEqIzki #Iran

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Before it was occupied by the United States in 1893, Hawai’i was a sovereign country with it own royal house, foreign policy, bank notes and stamps. In fact, it had been recognized as independent by Europeans countries for close to one hundred years. The last ruler of independent Hawai’i was a woman, queen Liliʻuokalani, 1838-1917. She was an accomplished author and the composer of “Aloha ‘Oe,” the most famous of all Hawai’ian songs. She represented her country at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London in 1887. Queen Liliʻuokalani is still revered by indigenous Hawaiians.

By the 1890s, the European occupation of all of North America was secure and the U.S. government continued its expansion across the Pacific. In 1893, the Americans organized an uprising among the locals in Hawaii. In 1898, they proceeded to annex the islands, the same year that they occupied the Philippines. The Hawaiian flag was lowered at the royal palace in Honolulu and the U.S. flag was raised. Hawai’i became a U.S. state in 1959, following a referendum in which 93% of voters approved of statehood. As a result, the islands were removed from the United Nations’ list of territories subject to decolonization. In 1993, the U.S. Congress issued an apology in which they admitted that “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States” and that “the Native Hawai’ian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands.”

There are today some 150,00 Hawai’ians of pure indigenous ancestry and another 400,00 people who claim partial indigenous ancestry. Together they constitute about a third of the population of the islands. Native Hawaiians are over-represented among the homeless and unemployed. Although there is an active independence movement, it has only limited support. A more poplar proposal is that the islands should be given a semi-sovereign status within the United States and that native Hawai’ians should be recognized as an indigenous American tribe. Queen Liliʻuokalani still has descendants who claim a right to the vacant throne. There are today some 42,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on the islands.

External links:

For the longest time Europeans refused to believe that the enormous mounds they had discovered in the valley of the Mississippi river were constructed by native people. The sheer size of the monuments was just too impressive. The “Indians,” the Europeans had decided, were hunters and gatherers but the people of the Mississippi valley lived in large cities and they grew crops. The construction of the mounds must have required years of dedicated labor. Only a highly organized society could have managed that task. Perhaps it was the Vikings who had built the mounds, or the Chinese, the Greeks or perhaps the ancient Egyptians?

The Europeans should have known better. There were still mound-builders in North America as late as in the eighteenth-century. In 1682 CE, French explorers visited the Natchez, a tribe living in the lower Mississippi. They were astonished to be greeted by their leader, known as the “Great Sun,” who lived in a large house on the top of a platform mound. The Great Sun was treated as a living god by his people and was carried in a litter wherever he went. His mother, known as “White Woman,” was his principal adviser and lived in a house on top of another mound. Ordinary members of Natchez society grew corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The Green Corn ceremony was the apex of their annual cycle of religious events. The Natchez were defeated in a war with French settlers in the 1730s. As a result some were sold into slavery in the Caribbean while others were forced to take refuge with other tribes. Today there is still a Natchez nation with some 6,000 members. It is led by a chief, still known as “Great Sun,” and by four “Clan Mothers.” The last fluent speaker of the Natchez language died in 1957. Today the Natchez are trying to revive their language.


External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “North American otter pipe”

The empires of the Americas are notorious for practicing human sacrifice, but what is less well known is that the rulers also practices a form of sacrifice on themselves. They cut themselves using sharp objects such obsidian, stingray spines or shark’s teeth. Any soft part of the body could be cut, but it was usually the tongue or the genitals. The scattered blood was then collected on paper made from bark and burned. The smoke conveyed the message to the gods.

Blood, to the Mayans, was the very force of life and in the beginning of time the gods had sacrificed their own blood in order for the world to come into being. Ever since humans have owed blood to the gods and the sacrifices were a way to repay this debt. Interestingly, the best blood was that of noblemen and the noblemen of the enemies were for that reason a prized catch in wars. The Maya would even maintain “farms” of noblemen who could be sacrificed on ceremonial occasions.

Anyone who claimed political authority would have to go through these ceremonies, and this included the kings and members of the royal family. A particularly gruesome scene from a Maya relief shows a queen with her tongue pierced. Through the hole a thread with thorns was then pulled. The agony must have been perfectly mind-altering. And that, indeed, seems to have been the point. The pain that the royals suffered put them in contact with transcendental realms and made clear to everyone else that they possessed unique spiritual powers. The bloodletting rituals were commonly performed when the ruler asked ordinary people to make sacrifices, such as when going to war. To make the point as effectively as possible, self-harm was performed in front of large gatherings of people – in a plaza or on the top of a pyramid. That the leaders of a country had to sacrifice themselves in these tangible ways surely meant that they were far more careful in embarking on risky ventures. If today’s political leaders were required to mutilate their genitals in public before declaring war, far fewer wars would surely be declared.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Maya relief of royal blood-letting”