Today I thought I'd do something different and share snippets of an alternate reality project I've been working on and off on for the last ... oh, I dunno how long. I remember @daleks_exterminate once telling me I'd be a wonderful high-fantasy writer, but alternate realities are much more interesting and fun because they have to interface with our actual reality in complex ways, and the ways they interact offer interesting thought experiments that we can use to test the validity of anthropological and historical hypotheses. To that end, I want to introduce you to what I call the "Rio Grande Problem," an oddity of the pre-Columbian Americas that really just does not make that much sense, and various attempts I have made to consider scenarios in which it is resolved.
The Rio Grande Problem
The delta of the Rio Grande, today known as the Rio Grande Valley, is a large fertile floodplain where the Rio Grande reaches the Gulf of Mexico. More to the point, it is just about the only large fertile floodplain within a large, semi-arid region known as the Tamaulipan mezquital, and not far to the north of the Tampico area, home of the Huastecs and the northeasternmost extension of Mesoamerica. By the same token, the Rio Grande delta lies a similar distance south of the Sabine Lake, at the edge of the Caddoan and Plaquemine Mississippian cultures, and hence almost exactly equidistant between Mesoamerica and the Eastern Woodlands. On top of that, the Rio Grande delta, being at the mouth of the Rio Grande, sits at the end of one of the two great rivers that drain Oasisamerica, a region that in the pre-Columbian period was very much part of the Mesoamerican periphery and the ultimate source of several valuable products, such as turquoise.
The Rio Grande delta is, in short, the axis which would conjoin three of pre-Columbian North America's four most important regions, and as such represented the ultimate prize available on the continent: the wealth that comes from a complete and total realigning of the continent's trade networks to take advantage of it. So who lived there? The Coahuiltecs -- in a region surrounded by urban or proto-urban societies, hunter-gatherers.
What's even more noticeable is that the Rio Grande delta is, in terms of economic geography, structurally similar to the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates on one hand, and the Indus on the other, where both sit at the nexus of coastal and riverine trade routes, and both, naturally enough, saw the rise of key early civilizations: Sumer and Harappa. Eridu, the world's first large city, sat quite literally at the mouth of the Euphrates at the time, and it should not surprise anybody that examples of the Indus Valley script have been found at Sumerian sites -- unequivocal evidence of trade between the two regions. Shouldn't we be seeing something similar happening in the Rio Grande delta?
Scenarios to solve the problem
(1) The Maya.
While most of us think of the Maya first and foremost as city-builders -- Chichén Itzá, Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, etc., loom large in the public imagination -- in fact they were also colonizers who first emerged on the Guatemalan highlands, whose first major cities came into being c. 750 BCE, and who, from there, spread north into the Petén Basin (associated with the Classic stage) and, by about 1000 CE, reached the northern Yucatán (associated with the Postclassic stage). By the time of Spanish conquest, the Maya had become able mariners -- although we have poor knowledge of their shipbuilding designs -- and several of their major cities, such as Kaan Pech (modern Campeche) had become oriented to the sea.
It therefore seems likely that the Maya would have expanded into western Cuba -- otherwise a natural cul-de-sac still home to an aceramic people -- and into the Rio Grande delta in the near archeological future, had the Spanish not shown up. The Maya had run out of Yucatán to colonize, you see, and -- unlike the Isthmian region to the southeast largely populated by the northernmost extension of the Andean Chibchan peoples -- those two regions would have represented the best opportunity for further colonization and settlement, from a Maya perspective.
That said, this hypothetical relies on Europe never discovering the Americas, and while it's easy to keep Columbus from sailing the ocean blue (the guy was an intellectual nutjob and, frankly, I'm of the opinion that Isabella gave him those ships just to get him sent as far away from court as humanly possible; possibly she was expecting the crews to mutiny and turn back around after a time, if she even cared about them at all), it's all but impossible to keep European knowledge of the North Atlantic from increasing during this time. The Norse are known to have reached the Americas, for example, and English and Basque fishermen were probably already exploiting the Grand Banks before Cabot sailed down the North American coast in 1497. And even if Cabot's voyage was inspired by Columbus', Portuguese exploration of the South Atlantic pursuant to their goal of opening a new trade route to India would lead to the independent discovery of Brazil (as happened in 1500). Sooner or later, colonies would show up -- which leads us to a reformulation of the problem at hand: we don't just want a hypothetical for what could have happened absent European influence; we want a scenario in which a wealthy urban Rio Grande delta civilization was already exerting influence in the Gulf basin by the time the Europeans had begun exploration of the Atlantic. And in that regard, the Maya aren't going to cut it.
(2) The Huastecs
We already discussed the Huastecs, centered around the Tampico River, as being the northeasternmost Mesoamerican culture, and thus its region -- La Huasteca -- the northeasternmost extension of Mesoamerica. So what if La Huasteca was just a bit bigger?
It turns out the Huastecs are, in fact, a Mayan people, speaking a Mayan language, but the Huastecs are actually representative of a separate migration from the Guatamalan highlands than the slow-but-steady northward spread of the Yucatec Maya (who are who we usually think of when we think of the Maya). In fact, while there isn't a consensus around this, the Huastecs probably reached La Huasteca c. 1300 BCE, which is conveniently around the same time as the Olmec highstand just to the south in the Veracruz swamps. And, as we have already established, the Tampico River's mouth is not that far from the Rio Grande's. So what if the Huastec migration stretched just a little bit further up the Gulf coast, reaching the Rio Grande?
This scenario has a lot going for it: A Huastec urban civilization in the Rio Grande delta contemporary with Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo, and La Venta to the south would likely kickstart urbanization in the Rio Grande's upper reaches, as well as along the American Gulf Coast (e.g. Galveston Bay, Sabine Lake, the Mississippi delta, Mobile Bay, etc.) It would see urban development in North America more closely mirror that of the Mediterranean in the Iron Age, classical antiquity, and Middle Ages. There's just one problem: maize.
See, Zea mays is a tropical plant. Its wild ancestors, the teosinte family, are highland grasses whose northernmost range roughly corresponds with the Tropic of Cancer (exhibits A, B, and C) It's possible -- just possible -- that the maize the Huastecs had would grow in the Rio Grande delta, but the delta is north of the Tropic of Cancer and at the edge of where early maize varietals received adequate conditions to come to maturity. So even if the Huastecs had built an urban civilization in the Rio Grande delta, the maize they had would not have been able to spread any further northward -- in fact, the maize currently grown in the United States comes from landraces that were developed in Oasisamerica!
(At which point one should be asking, Well then, knife, why wouldn't Oasisamerican maize varieties get transshipped through the Rio Grande delta and reach the Eastern Woodlands a thousand years earlier than they did, along with an urban civilization package to go with it? To which I say: fair point. But there's some other stuff I'm considering that leads me to ask after a third possible scenario to resolve the Rio Grande problem.)
(3) The Oasisamericans
Because maize agriculture was necessary to produce the complex civilization of the Mississippians (as opposed to the Hopewell and Adena peoples, the latter of whom had no access to maize and the former of whom seemed to have rejected it), and one of the major problems we want to solve here is how to accelerate the spread of maize into the Eastern Woodlands, we will be disregarding influences from the northeast in favor of those from Oasisamerica.
The problem here, though, is that Oasisamerica was seriously underdeveloped at contact. Maize was domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley ca. 9000 BCE, but did not spread into the Conchos Valley and the San Juan Basin -- the heart of Oasisamerica -- until ca. 3000 BCE, a time difference of some 6000 years!
Oasisamerica is structurally similar to the Fertile Crescent, with highland regions (e.g. where settlements like Çatalhöyük were found) being settled first, and only later, as the highlands ran out of room did farmers spread into the river valleys. (I am also implying here that the region's pueblos and Çatalhöyük are exact analogues, by the by.) From the time when wheat was first domesticated in the Anatolian and Levantine highlands sometime before 8000 BCE to the rise of Sumer and the world's first large cities ca. 3000 BCE, some >5000 years had passed. Interestingly enough, approximately the same amount of time had elapsed from when temperate maize varietals first spread in Oasisamerica to the pueblo cultures we find at contact in the region. What I am suggesting here is that the pueblo societies we find in Oasisamerica are exact analogues to immediately pre-Sumerian Fertile Crescent cultures, such as the Ubaid and Samarra, and that continued development without European intervention would have led to the rise of urban cultures in the Colorado and Rio Grande deltas in about a millennium (the latter, interestingly enough, conflicting with the Maya likely starting the colonize the same place about the same time).
What this means is that the 6000-year-long lag time between the domestication of maize and the development of its temperate landraces mattered. A lot. Does this vindicate Jared Diamond's hypothesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel? Well ... yes and no. The issue, I think, is less that maize took so long to develop (which does vindicate his hypothesis) and more that there were no native cereal grasses amenable to domestication in the Oasisamerican highlands, which, if we remember our map of teosinte's wild range, is very much a quirk of ecology: the northernmost varieties of Zea mexicana, common teosinte, can be found in southern Chihuahua: north of the Tropic of Cancer and at the very southern edge of the Conchos River valley. A single minor mutation, and we would have seen teosinte spreading all the way up the North American cordillera. And if the Oasisamericans had had access to that at the same time the Mesoamericans had access to teosinte in the Tehuacán Valley ... North America would have developed significantly faster than it did in our world.