Native Americans unable to see Columbus's ships?

Just saw the movie “What the heck do we know?”, and it contained an anecdote that I am very skeptical about. It claimed that when Columbus first came to the new world, the natives there couldn’t see his ships. That because the ships were so outside the natives’ mental framework, they simply couldn’t perceive them. Finally a shaman noticed that something was blocking the waves at that spot, and eventually was able to “show” his tribe how to see the ships.

This sounds like a load of hooey to me. I can well accept that the natives would have had no idea what they were looking at. But surely they still knew that they were looking at something. Ignoring large mysterious objects is not a survival strategy, and I just can’t believe that they would simply “tune out” the ships.

Does anyone know where this anecdote originated from?

IMHO, “hooey” is too polite a term. :wink:

Some of the comments here may be of interest to you.

Anyone who wants to believe this tale is going to have to explain why it wasn’t true elsewhere. For example, when Capt. Cook appeared off New Zealand and Hawaii, there’s not the slightest evidence that the natives had any difficulty seeing the ships.

I think the researcher for the film might’ve been a fan of Douglas Adams. (The inhabitants of Kricket had no concept of the sky until a spaceship fell out of it.)

I recall reading that the Mezo-American natives , who had never seen a horse, thought the conquistador rider and horse to be one creature. easy to imagine if you cosider the coverings and armour that were typical of both. But not see them at all… horse-hockey.

I suppose I could also say that when Windows 2000 or XP came out, I couldn’t “see” them because the concept of a (relatively) crash-free OS didn’t exist to me?

The idea of people not being able to see things outside of their worldview was pretty common in 1930’s science fiction. It probably derives from the speculation of some crusty old philosopher or psychologist; an expansion on Leibnitz’s Monads perhaps?

What he refers to as S.E.P. (Someone Else’s Problem). The idea is that the object in question is so ridiculously out of context that the mind ignores it. It could not possibly be there and so is irrelevant to one’s existence. It is therefore Someone Else’s Problem.

Adams is Frickin’ brilliant. This phenomenon happens all the time in real life with everyday things–stuff that almost falls into this category gets what we regular folks call a “double take.”

[continues hijack] …and the underlying mathematics of the universe is similar to the complexities of the food bill at an Italian restaurant… It does make sense. :smiley: [/hijack]

If that were true, Macs would be transparent, rather than fruit colored …

Just recycled “new age” philosophy trying to pass as science.

Right. “What The ^%$# Do We Know” is really an argument for the idea that “we make our own reality”.

So “they can’t even see the ship because it’s totally inconceivable to them” is like saying that we “can’t see” evidence of, say, communication with the dead, or telekinesis, just because we lack the mental/linguistic framework to “see” it in our deficient, limited, western scientific minds. And it will take someone enlightened to show it to us.

The thing is that not understanding is not the same thing as not even seeing that something’s there. In the case of the ships, the human eye will see an object blocking the light even if the brain can’t make heads or tails of it. It will just be “an unknown thing”, but a thing nonetheless.

It should be pointed out that millions of native Americans couldn’t see Columbus’s ships.

Oh, please. Native Americans knew what boats were. They may not have ever seen a ship, but I can’t believe that none of them made the observation “hey, that’s a big ass boat!”

So all we need to do to make a naval ship invisible–an aircraft carrier for example–is to paint it pink with yellow polka-dots. As we have never seen a pink polka-dotted aircraft carrier, it will not be visible to us.

The word you are looking for is “racist”.

Yes, but you´ll be hard pressed to find sailors willing to man it; people have digninty, you know?

That’ll be no problem, they won’t be able to see it.

You will have trouble finding pilots who can land on it though.

Well, if you paint the top to look like concrete, then surely it’ll be no more difficult than an ordinary landing?

Isn’t there some old movie with a pink submarine? So I guess that color scheme is out.