Saturday, August 4, 2012
I have been reading The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen, a prize-winning book that deserves all the praise heaped on it. The part that impressed me the most was Hämäläinen's explanation of how Commanche culture changed at the empire's height, leading to anomalies like obese Indian chiefs.
I always thought of the Comanche as buffalo hunters and therefore as a specialized sort of hunter-gatherer. But the Comanche had huge herds of horses, around 5 horses per person or as many as 150,000 in all. They devoted much more time and resources to breeding, training, and raising horses than they did to hunting, so as Hämäläinen says they are more appropriately seen as pastoralists than hunters. Horse trading was their economic mainstay. On the northern plains, winters were too harsh for horses to reproduce themselves consistently, so more northerly Indians needed a constant inflow of horses from the south. So did American frontiersmen. The Comanche met those needs, trading horses they bred themselves and, even more, horses they stole in Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas. They also traded buffalo robes and meat; in return they got guns, ammunition, metal tools, cloth, and food, especially maize. They fixed the terms of this trade in their favor by force, if necessary, making war on people until they saw the light and accepted the deal the Comanche were offering. So at their height, when they controlled the southern plans and raided wherever they wished across the whole of Mexico, their leaders grew very rich.
As generally happens with warlike pastoralists, Comanche society was highly sexist. Women did all the work around the camp, with help from boys, while the men planned and carried out their raids, traded, and managed the empire. A man with a lot of horses needed many women to do all that work. So the leading Comanches had as many as a dozen wives. They also had female slaves, whom they stole in Mexico. It says something about the society that the difference between junior wives and slaves was small, and men often ended up freeing their slaves and marrying them.
This is my favorite kind of history; take a bizarre fact like the fat chiefs of the Comanche, and by explaining it reveal something profound about he society involved.