Cultures on a Collision Course

Land Rights

In general, social issues are far more difficult to resolve than the unsolved mysteries of natural science. Among the most volatile and perennial of these issues are questions of land rights and concerns over culture shock when civilizations meet for the first time.


Divide the class into small groups to discuss the following issues on land rights.

1. If a landing party sets foot on a large deserted island, does that group of people own the entire island or only those parts they actually set foot upon? If there weren't any water surrounding that island, how far out would their ownership extend?

2. If an astronaut lands on another planet, can the astronaut's country claim ownership of the entire planet, only part of the planet, or none of it?

3. Apollo astronauts have already landed at six different lunar sites. Does the United States own all the moon, only those sites (how far from the landers?) or none of the moon?

4. Soviet unmanned spacecraft landed on the moon before American astronauts. The Soviet flag was aboard these missions. Does this entitle the Soviet Union to possession of the moon? If it does, who now owns the moon, given that the Soviet Union no longer exists?

5. Can only humans own land? What about other animals? If aliens from outer space land on a deserted wasteland on earth, do they own that land?

First Contact

Historically, when cultures make initial contact with each other, significant benefits and problems result. Columbus' voyages across the Atlantic ultimately introduced horses to the American plains, while nutritional crops like corn and tomato were transplanted in Europe. The native Indians taught the Europeans how to smoke tobacco, while Europeans traded firearms. Without immunity from newly transmitted diseases, both new and old worlds experienced increases in mortality. Smallpox and common childhood diseases drove many American Indian tribes to extinction, while a virulent strain of syphilis (termed "the vengeance of the vanquished") crossed over to Europe with lethal, epidemic proportions.

More recently, this concern compelled NASA officials to quarantine the crew of Apollo 11 and 12 for about two weeks upon returning from their moon landings.


Divide the class into small groups to discuss the following questions on first contacts.

1. Use the cartoon in Figure 10 as a starting point to discuss the cultural and environmental impact that results when cultures first meet.

Columbus meets Indian with EIS

2. Suppose two types of microorganisms are found on Mars: one primitive, the other more advanced. Analysis indicates that only the primitive microorganisms might be endangered by the presence of humans. Should manned missions be banned from Mars? Suppose the advanced Martian organism is found to be lethal only to earth mosquitoes. Should these they transported to earth?

3. Suppose we pick up alien radio signals from another world. Debate the pros and cons of answering such a signal. Who on earth should decide whether a response should be made and what contents it should contain? What consequences both good and bad might result from such a response? Have the class debate this issue in the format of a United Nations forum.

4. Voyagers mentions other explorers (like the Chinese monk Hui-Shen and the Viking explorer Leif Erikson) who may have reached the Americas before Columbus. Research some of these early voyagers to the Americas. Which ones do you think are legends, which are factual? If others reached America before Columbus, why is Columbus recognized as the principal discoverer of America?

Further Reading:

Lord, Lewis, U.S. News & World Report, pp. 22-37, July 8, 1991; Jackson, Donald, Smithsonian, pp. 76-85, Sep. 1991.

Financial Concerns

All expeditions involve commitment of manpower and money.

The cost of Columbus' first voyage has been estimated at $152,000. The itemized expenses of this mission included:

Columbus expedition cost

The total expense for this mission could have purchased 20 new houses in Spain at that time.


Suppose an unconfirmed report claims that an island exists 1000 miles north of Maui. An expedition to investigate whether this island actually exists would cost $10 million, approximately the cost of 20 middle-income homes in Hawaii. This $10 million could be used to build a housing complex for 100 low-income families. Divide the class into two groups. One group should argue in favor of the expedition, while the other should argue for housing.

Further Reading:

Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus and the Age of Discovery, p. 119, 1991.

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