Early European commentators often described Native Americans either as simple, noble, and Edenic as in this depiction of Florida Indians by the
Flemish-German engraver Theodore de Bry or as cannibalistic savages. (New York Public Library, New York)
Some writers, drawing on older Catholic literature, connected the Africans’ skin color with God’s curse on Ham or his son Canaan as described in Genesis
9 10. That tradition included the notion that Ham and his male offspring were particularly libidinous, and Europeans tended to view West Africans (who
wore relatively few clothes) as innately sensual and driven by lust. Some Europeans even tried to connect African humans to African apes, describing
similarities between the beast-like man and the man-like beast, and theorizing that apes had attacked and copulated with African women. While writers
continued older traditions of viewing Africans’ animist and Moslem religions as a crucial division between savage cultures and Europe’s civilized ways, the
intellectual foundations for racism and for plantation slavery in the Americas were set during the early stages of exploration and trade with Africa.
Also important was how the Europeans’ notion of race shifted noticeably after they began exploiting the Americas. Initially, Native Americans were not
described in terms of color, or, if they were, they were considered white like Europeans, although somewhat tanned by paint or dye or smoked by the
fires in their wigwams. Since many Native Americans lived along the same latitude as darker-skinned Africans, Europeans began to reject the concept that
skin color was determined by one’s distance from the equator, and by extension began questioning older notions that the environment generally
determined human characteristics.
Native Americans became a cultural mirror: Europeans tended to describe them as simple, noble, and Edenic (in order to criticize unwanted developments
in their own countries, such as crowded cities and capitalism) or as hideous cannibalistic savages (in order to excuse their hostility and aggression toward
the native peoples). While this bifurcated view persisted past the colonial period, most European intellectuals depicted Native Americans as nearly at the
level of animals, because the men were relatively hairless and were seen as exerting little control over their environment, and the women wore few
clothes and were supposedly insubordinate, with high sexual appetites.
Again, Christianity was often depicted as the most significant distinction between Europeans and others. At best, Native Americans were seen as having
no religion and, at worst, as devil worshipers. While many writers thought that culture and environment alone made Native Americans different that even
their skin color was a result of culture (unlike those in Africa) descriptions of Native American savagery supported ideas of innate European superiority.