Everyone is a native somewhere — and always has been. Native is just a latinate way of saying “was born”. I am a native of a certain city on the East Coast: let’s call it Kallipolis. I was born in Roosevelt Hospital, catty-corners from my parents’ apartment in the center of Kallipolis, so that makes Kallipolis my birthplace. When I was a bit older we moved three blocks west, but my primary school was still a block east of the hospital, so I walked by the beautifully manicured grounds of the hospital every morning on my way to school. The sort of spatial preoccupation, this brooding over compact stomping grounds, is why “birthplace” has emotional overtones, and it is why when we call someone a native of a place we do not just mean, “this is where he popped out”; we mean that someone knows the lay of the land, the people, the paths, the dialect, the local way of thinking. A native is a part of a community of natives. This is why we sometimes call people natives of the places they grew up, rather than where they were born. In this sense perhaps I am a native of the small town in New England where I spent most of my childhood rather than of Kallipolis, where I was born.
The early European explorers called the people they met, wherever they met them, “the natives”. This did not imply any very complex form of social identity — on the contrary, these explorers usually portrayed their “natives” as primitive savages — but rather that they had been born in a strange land and grown up familiar with its wild jungles and equally wild customs. This is also the sense in which people used to be called “nativist”, i.e. prejudiced in favor of the familiar faces and places of whichever community they were born into. This original understanding of “nativism” has grown musty, if not downright obsolete. Perhaps the closest alternative is “parochialism”, which is an excellent image of the peasant born into the parish community: rarely meeting anyone further away than the parish church, loyal to friends, suspicious of strangers, at home in his local neck of the woods but completely lost if forced to step over the parish line. “Community” is a word that has been twisted and turned until it barely means anything anymore, but if we imagine the familiarity born of proximity that we find in an isolated parish, we see the kind of community that everyone has always participated in to some extent, merely by being born in a place and continuing to dwell there.
There have been natives and nativism (parochialism) since time immemorial. Nations and nationalism are a different story. Nation comes from the same etymological root as native (the place one was born, nascere > natio) and was used to mean “birthplace” for centuries, especially after the alternative patria (where one’s fathers come from) started to take on political overtones. By a common process of inversion, nationes began to refer specifically to foreigners, whose birthplaces were far away (“there” rather than “here”). Understandably, these foreign nationes were not grouped by individual parish, but by more abstract principles that grouped people who were broadly from the same region, language-group or political unit into one “nation”. This system might see Englishmen, Scandinavians and Poles all as one “nation” for the purposes of quartering traders or establishing a dormitory for university students. This system was then reflected back on the native population at whom the system had been directed abroad, who used the word “nation” to describe the communal ties they felt.
This etymology of nation is uncontested. What is contested is whether, in the period when it came into use (roughly 1500-1800), the members of the “German nation” or the “French nation” were expressing feelings of national unity and loyalty which they had always felt (but with a new word), or whether these feelings were relatively new. Benedict Anderson, for example, claimed nationalism was no older than the publishing industry whose printing presses made linguistic affiliation a serious matter for the first time, and began to expose the reading public of a specific print market to a canon of shared “experiences” which, in imitating the real shared experiences that bind together the natives of a parish or a neighborhood, inadvertently called forth the “imagined community” of the nation.
I used to find the so-called “modernist” account, which claims there were neither nations nor nationalism before the modern period, convincing. Now I’m unsure.
In looking for evidence of pre-Gutenberg nationalism, it is important not to turn to examples of pre-Gutenberg parochialism. It is clear, for example, that the natives of Rome had parochial attitudes towards the Gauls, Germans, Greeks, and so on, and that Renaissance classicists were happy to have classical authorities through whom they could channel their own parochial instincts. But this parochialism does not make them nationalists; you can lump foreign barbarians into various categories without picturing an analogous category for yourself among the nationes. Conversely, in dismissing evidence for pre-Gutenberg nationalism, one must bear in mind that the nationalists do not make the nation. Modernist scholars often tacitly assume that nations show up in the ideological loyalties of their citizens if they show up anywhere. But if you are a realist about nationality, you are likely to believe you could figure out what nation someone is from with a quick DNA test and a principle components analysis.