1491—New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.
Mr. Mann’s thesis is that very little of what we have been told about life in the Americas before Columbus is actually true. Our textbooks still maintain that as of 1491, the Americas were a nearly untouched wilderness sparsely occupied by tribes of primitive hunter-gatherers. Wrong on all counts!! North America did not have 3 to 5 million people—it contained 30 to 50 million, making it more populous than Europe. But the first contact with Europeans brought smallpox, hepatitis, and other diseases to which the Indians had utterly no resistance. Ninety-five percent of them died, and by the time Europeans began any systematic exploration of the interior 150 years later, the Indians had not only vanished but nearly any trace of their ever having existed also vanished, except in central America where stone had been used as a building material. Their way of life left little or no trace except the stories still told by their descendants. While white America has always rejected oral histories which contradict their long held beliefs about Indians in pre-Columbian times, archaeology is now beginning to confirm these accounts.
Mann says a controversy now exists as to the level of population in the Americas before Columbus. Those who defend the old view that the Americas were very sparsely populated are the “low counters.” Those who believe that the current archaeological data shows that the population was several times higher are the “high counters.” Mann devotes a good portion of his book to expounding and defending the “high count.” I won’t attempt to summarize the evidence which Mann presents to support this position, but he presents a great deal of it. He approaches the problem from several different disciplines; and he makes, I believe, a pretty convincing case.
When Columbus first visited the island of Hispaniola, he estimated that the island contained 2 million people. On his return trip, not a single living soul was found. The streets were littered with decaying corpses, but no one survived. They had died of smallpox. Some probably lived long enough to carry the disease to the mainland, but not all the continent was depopulated instantly. When Desoto explored the lower Mississippi about 1541, he said that both sides of the river were heavily settled, and that one city (probably Cahokia, across the river from present day St Lewis) was larger than Paris. Joliet came down that river 150 years later, and for hundreds of miles at a stretch, he saw no sign that “the hand of man” had ever touched the place.
Mann says that pre-Columbian Indians were mostly farmers, not hunter-gatherers. But when their numbers plummeted, they abandoned their fields and reverted to hunting. As the fields became overgrown with trees, these fields gradually became mature forest which the early white settlers foolishly mistook for virgin forest. Also, the Indians had a profound effect on the land they occupied, not merely as the inadvertent consequence of living on the land, but as the result of deliberately and actively managing every square inch of it. They used agriculture and fire to change the landscape just as radically as we do with bulldozers. Even the areas left as forest were intensively managed. Captain John Smith once bragged that he could ride his horse at full gallop through any woods in Virginia. A hundred years later this would not have been possible. But in his day, the woods had been more of an open savanna, kept so by annual burnings. The great plains were managed by fire also.
Mann also contends that the massive flocks of passenger pigeons seen in the late 18th century were not part of a normal pattern, nor were the great herds of bison noted by Lewis and Clark. Rather, these phenomena were the result of a fairly recent environmental catastrophe.
When Coronado explored southern Kansas about 1540, he made no mention of bison at all. A single bison would be a pretty imposing sight to a Spaniard who had never seen one, to say nothing of a thundering herd of 10,000. Apparently, bison did not exist in large numbers in the early 16th century, and Kansas may have contained none at all. Three hundred years later, the plains contained 70 million. Many Indian tribes hunted bison, but it was not an important staple of their diet before Columbus. The pre-Columbian corn farmers in Cahokia occasionally hunted birds. Bird bones are found in their trash heaps, but passenger pigeon bones are found only rarely. The explosive growth of these two species began only after the first Europeans visited this continent.
In any area, there is usually a “keystone species,” a species whose importance to the overall ecosystem is such that their abrupt removal or reduction causes chaos. Man (the Indians) had been that keystone, and their abrupt depopulation from smallpox meant that the balance that had been maintained by the Indians’ use of fire, hunting, and agriculture no longer existed. The result was the explosive growth in some species and the extinction of others.
Indian agriculture was also quite sophisticated, in some ways more sophisticated than that of Europe. The plant breeding achievement in developing corn from its ancient wild ancestor far exceeds anything Western science has ever achieved in plant genetics. And there are gardens in Oaxaca that have been tilled for 4000 years and are still fertile. They remain so, not through crop rotation, but through multi-culture. Corn, beans, squash, and chilies are grown in the same field at the same time. The corn provided a stalk for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen for the corn, and the squash leaves are ground cover to stop weed growth. Every year, these crops, along with human and animal waste, replace everything which is removed from the soil. And the nutrition derived from this combination of plants provides a nearly perfectly balanced diet.
In some ways, even the Amazon rain forest may be a largely human artifact. In any populated part of the Amazon basin, the jungle seems to contain an unnaturally high proportion of trees that provide edible fruit or some other product useful to humans. It turns out that these species of trees, some 168 of them, are probably not wild trees but the wild descendants of cultivated varieties originally planted there by humans. In fact, some areas of the Amazon basin which are above flood level (a small percentage of the total land, but still a vast acreage) are covered with “anthropogenic” soil. In these areas, which are still being gardened, you can find soil that contains alternating layers of pot shards, fish bones, leaf mulch, and other things obviously placed there by humans. This stuff is now so rich a growing medium that it is packaged and sold as potting soil. A recently excavated burial mound which had been formed from this “man made” soil was estimated to contain 40 million pot shards. Yet this mound used only a small part of the dirt from the farm field where it was built. To manage a vast acreage that intensively would take a very large population living there for a very long time. According to Charles Mann, this is what there was.
Amazon basin people today practice slash and burn (swidden) agriculture. The prevailing view is that this was always the case. Mann claims that slash and burn farming was never possible anywhere before the introduction of the steel axe blade, because clearing land with stone tools is so inefficient that if you were only to farm a plot for ten or twenty years and then abandon it, the total food calories produced would never return the calories expended in clearing it.
Obviously, the severity with which the Indians impacted their environment was not uniform. Those living too far north for agriculture would have lived as hunters and trappers, much as the Indians in northern Canada do today. As such, they would have altered the environment only minimally. But by 800 AD, Indians were farming most parts of North America which are farmed today. And in the Amazon basin, they practiced something akin to agriculture in places where we would not be successful today.
The political institutions of the Indians were often as sophisticated as their agriculture. The Six Iroquois Nations had an elected parliament which dates back to about 1150 AD and which still functions today. It is the second oldest representative democratic body on the planet, second only to Iceland. The pre-Columbian Iroquois did not practice slavery, and their women enjoyed a status much closer to gender equality than European women at the time. When English and French settlers first encountered the Iroquois, they were dumbfounded by their “outrageous” ideas, such as the belief that all men were by nature free—that no man could be owned by another—and that every man had an equal right to a voice in the governing of his country.
Europeans saw these “naïve and silly” ideas as proof that the Indians would always be “ungovernable savages.” They also found such ideas so amusing that they were quickly reported back to Europe. But not all Europeans were amused. The philosophers of the Enlightenment took these ideas seriously and argued about them for the next hundred years. John Locke was particularly impressed. He saw the Indians as “man in the natural state.” So he assumed that Iroquois concepts of individual freedom and equality must be the natural rights of man. Jefferson and the other framers of the American constitution were familiar with the writings of Locke. They also had direct personal knowledge of Iroquois democracy, and knew that it actually worked. Democracy is not an invention that can be patented, but if it were, the Iroquois may have the prior claim. In any case, Western democratic institutions and ideas of freedom and equality probably owe more to the Iroquois than to the Magna Charta. (Mann doesn’t mention it, but I believe I’ve read somewhere that the phrase, “all men are created equal” is translated directly from an Iroquois law.)
Mann contends that the Indians gave us corn, potatoes, and democracy—and also tobacco and syphilis. We gave them horses, guns, and steel tools—and also alcohol, smallpox, and Christianity. Most modern Americans are a bit conflicted about having taken the Indians’ land. We have no intention of giving it back and couldn’t if we wanted to. But we’ve never felt it was quite fair to have taken it. Somehow, believing that American was a vast, nearly empty wilderness, peopled only by a handful of child-like primitives makes taking this land seem more justifiable. The main message in 1491 is that however comforting our beliefs may be, they are simply not true. We’d like to believe that America was an empty wilderness. But it wasn’t empty and it wasn’t really wilderness. If you haven’t yet read 1491, I strongly recommend it. It’s the perfect sequel for Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. .