Satellite image of Laguna San Antonio, Bolivia. NASA image

What Were the Americas Really Like Before Columbus?

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What were the Americas really like before Columbus, prior to the European exploration and invasion? Charles C. Mann’s very readable 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus describes some current research and controversies, uncovering some surprising ground.

(Mann wrote a very interesting article for The Atlantic in 2002 based on the book. The article, also entitled “1491“, covers some of the major points of his book. An interview of the same period (“The Pristine Myth“) is only available online and not available in the print version. The article is available online in various places. Just search for it.)

The standard story of the pre-Columbian Americas is easily summarized: a couple of largish civilizations in Central and South America (Mayans, Aztec and Incan) existed who were brutish, superstitious societies who killed a lot. The others, by and large, lived in true harmony with the pristine environment, upon which they had little impact. The land of North America was little populated, a wild sanctuary with almost no one in it, a pristine environment destroyed by the settlers.

It’s a great story.

Except it’s almost entirely untrue.

The Americas had fairly large populations, contrary to the standard story. The first Europeans told of a land so full of healthy people that they could not take it. Resistance would be too great.

The next to visit said that they land was so full of skulls that it looked like a modern Golgotha.

These people weren’t the feral man who had no impact on the environment that the environmentalists like to portray. They actively managed the land, even in North America, using primarily fire. The giant herds of bison seen in the Old West of America weren’t there when the first explorers of the Mississippi came through but were there in droves later. Same for the passenger pigeon. The explosions of these populations (herds of bison on the plains able to be seen from outer space) were the result of removing the species that had controlled them: Homo Sapiens.

This isn’t a “the Indians were in tune with nature so let’s be like them and live in wigwams” garbage talk that comes out of so many environmentalists. The Indians managed their land like every human group before them and managed it well.

Mann makes a very persuasive argument that “slash & burn” as practiced in the Amazon is the result not of ancient practices but of the modern metal axe and the destruction of Indian civilisations by disease, war and extermination campaigns. Jane Jacobs makes a similar argument about these “primitive man” groups. She argued that they must be the result of the fall of a great civilisation, that our progress doesn’t happen outside of “cities”. She would be happy with Mann’s treatment, I think, because it vindicates much of her ideas.

Native Americans did more than just give us maize (corn), tomatoes, potatoes, and tortilla-based meals. Maize alone would have been a remarkable achievement in the history of mankind, a foodstuff that seems to have no ancestor, or at least no surviving ancestor. (Yes, I know the teostine argument. But since maize is so promiscuous, it’s unlikely that an ancestor would survive the rise of the “engineered” strands with larger, non-exploding fruit.)

They may have created innovations that can still be useful today, such as the use of charcoal in soil treatments. When used along with fertilizer (guano?), test fields had yields 875% greater than untreated Amazonian soil, and more than double fertilizer alone. And it remains good soil. Some Andean fields have been farmed since the times of Sumer.

Saying First Peoples were effective land managers seems to offend everyone, so it’s probably correct. (Like all human groups, they did some idiot things, too.) Conservatives balk because it seems like yet another politically correct “let’s hate the white guys” move to claim that up to 95% of the Indians died of European diseases and the collapse that followed. Environmentalists hate the thought that the Indians weren’t mindless idiots who lived like deer in the environment but humans who manipulated their world to create an Amazon that supported thousands in a single “city”.

The ideas are controversial and worth taking time to examine. That the first Americans came much longer than 13,000 years ago, long before the infamous “land bridge” between Russia and Alaska, is now quite well established. That the Mississippian cultures had large settlements is also clear from the initial accounts. Some of the ranges, of course, are ridiculously large (Did 60 or 95% of the Indians die of disease? Were there 1M or 500,000 in this area?) and will probably never be refined. But that the Indians developed great cultures in spite of having no beasts of burden, domesticable large animals for food, or easily domesticated grains is impressive. The idea that they probably had the world’s largest civilisation thousands of years ago in the middle of an area that gets no rainfall is even more amazing.

It’s not about keeping the land pristine, something that probably makes no sense even if no one lived here before the Europeans came. Rather, Mann makes the point for intelligent management of the land, the development of an ecosystem that supports man fully and sustainably.

Worth reading.


Image Credit: Satellite image of Laguna San Antonio, Bolivia. NASA image.

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