Urban Almanac

Thoughts for Columbus Day

By Veronica Adams

Giving thanks to the original innovators of the Americas

I  am no fan of the Columbus Day holiday that is still unfortunately observed in the U.S. (this year on Monday, October 14). My hope is that, in time, this day will instead honor the memory of the upwards to 200 million inhabitants of the Americas who were here when the European invasion and genocide began, and their descendents.

And so, in recognition that Columbus did not “discover” America, I choose to honor some of the countless, little known innovations made by the wonderfully creative indigenous Americans that have ultimately benefitted the entire planet.

Almanacs:  Containing meteorological and astronomical information, these were invented by the Mayans around 3,500 years ago.

Calendars: Developed throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and South America, used since 600 BCE. So precise that by the 5th century BCE, they were only 19 minutes off.

Chewing gum: Made from the spruce tree in New England. The Mayans were the first people to make it from latex gum.

Long-fiber cotton: Its export helped to fuel much of the Industrial Revolution throughout the world.

Embalming: Egyptians began their mummification around 2000 BCE, 3000 years after the Chinchoro of South America began the practice.

Foods, glorious foods! Approximately 60% of the food upon which the world’s population depends was developed centuries ago by American Indian agrarians who domesticated crops including: six species of maize/corn (150 varieties), five major species of beans, hundreds of varieties of potatoes, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, a range of nuts, avocado, wild rice, and more. Popular snack foods derived from American Indian agriculture include potato chips, French fries and popcorn. And where, oh where, would humanity be without chocolate (Mayan and Aztec) and vanilla?

Gold plating: – The Moche (Peru) dissolved gold using an alum/saltpetre/salt mixture which was then deposited onto copper vessels.

Travel: The Incan highway system with roads and bridges all up and down South America and their foot messengers would have put the Greek marathon runners to shame.

Medicine:  Aztecs far surpassed simply knowing which bark made good aspirin or could be used for quinine to treat malaria, or which berries treated scurvy. Using their sophisticated obsidian knives, Aztecs knew how to perform a variety of surgeries, from the mundane to brain surgery.

Anesthetics:  American Indians used coca, peyote, datura and other plants for partial or total loss of sensation or consciousness during surgery, whereas non-Indian doctors didn’t have effective anesthetics until after the mid-19th century. Other medicines include novocaine, syrup of ipecac and astringents.

Political theory: The Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York represented a union of six tribes. Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers borrowed heavily from the democratic Iroquois “federal system” of government when they planned the union that became the United States.  The U.S. Constitution bears more resemblance to the model of the League of the Iroquois than the Greek Senate or English House of Lords.  The whole idea of a balance of powers, of electing representatives, of governing by consensus all came from the Indians who were generally ruled, not by a “Big Chief,” but rather by a council of elders.

Rubber products: The Olmec (Mexico) produced rubber balls by mixing rubber tree sap and latex around 1700 BCE. Along with the Maya, they discovered the process of vulcanization in waterproofing such items as capes, shoes, bottles, tarpaulins, ponchos and baskets.

Sports: Field and ice hockey and lacrosse (Canadian First Nations). Basketball was played by the Olmec over 3,000 years ago following their invention of the rubber ball.

Sciences:  The science of ecology as well as the American Indian belief system teaches that all life is interrelated and interdependent. This relationship is expressed in American Indian oral traditions and conservation practices.

Mathematics: American Indian mathematic achievements include the development of highly accurate calendars and place value arithmetic. The Mayans of southern Mexico and Central America were the first people to use the concept of zero in mathematical calculations.

Also: diapers, asphalt, megaphones, hair conditioner, hammocks, the spinning top, sunscreen, syringe needles, petroleum jelly, and freeze- drying foods such as meat jerky.

Much is owed the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including acknowledgement for their creative and innovative genius.


Veronica Adams holds a Master of Divinity at Harvard with a concentration on cultural values and comparative religions. A student of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, she teaches mindfulness and meditation.


The organizations listed below work diligently on behalf of indigenous people and need our support.

Native American Rights Fund: www.narf.org

Adopt-A-Native-Elder: www.AnElder.org

Urban Indian Center of SLC: UICSL.org National Congress of American Indians:  www.ncai.org

Native Web which lists multiple organizations: https://bit.ly/2mo3elY

The American Indian Institute for Innovation: www.theaiii.com/index.php?page=home


This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.