The history of history is a tale of revision, with the certitudes of one era constantly giving way to new discovery and deeper understanding of the past.
For most of us, the story of European incursion in the Americas is a set piece — explorers from Norway, Spain, England, France and Portugal sailed to a sparsely populated hemisphere and moved in. Europeans bargained with and then killed off the indigenous people who, with few exceptions, lived as smallish tribes of gatherer/hunters who had theretofore lived lightly in a rich wilderness. The exceptions to the rule were in Mexico and Peru, where apparently successful and powerful empires melted before the invasion of a handful of soldiers with firearms and horses. And, inexplicably, the huge populations that must have supported such empires simply disappeared.
But science journalist Charles C. Mann has combed through archaeological research conducted throughout the Americas in recent decades to assemble a decidedly different story. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) — out just in time for Columbus Day Oct. 10 — delivers a jarring look at a biological and cultural holocaust that shakes commonly held worldviews to their roots.
Scholars have determined that when Columbus arrived, there were more people living in the Americas than in Europe; that cities were thriving here before Egypt built the great pyramids; that the first Indians probably arrived here at least 33,000 years ago by boat — not on foot; and that the Amazonian rain forest was a vast plantation, not a wilderness.
The reason that even today one can wander out into that “jungle” and find plentiful fruits and nuts is that they were cultivated by humans.
Following Spanish contact, disease spread throughout the Americas far faster than was previously understood. Sure, we’ve all heard about white people giving smallpox-infested blankets to red people — but that was long after European diseases killed off 90 to 95 percent of the indigenous population. Disease raced across the continents, decades ahead of the people who had carried them here.
The 60 million bison that populated the Western plains by the time of Lewis and Clark’s journey were the result of a sudden, recent population explosion that followed the eradication of most of the hunters who had previously kept bison numbers in check. The flocks of passenger pigeons that could darken the sky for hours were a similar phenomenon, made possible when widespread fields of grain abruptly went unharvested. The climax chestnut forest that stretched from New England to Georgia and into the Midwest was planted.
Because Indians didn’t have domestic animals other than dogs (there were no readily domesticable wild animals in this hemisphere), and did not keep cows or pigs — whence Europeans acquired their most pernicious diseases — the natives had not developed any immunity to the poxes and flus that were their undoing. They hadn’t even evolved the physiology that enabled Old World peoples to acquire immunity to such pathogens.
When Pizarro marched into the Inca empire, he conquered a land where nine of 10 people had died in the past few years. A holocaust on this scale is almost unimaginable. The nearest event in European history is the bubonic plague, which killed far fewer people over a much longer span (and the Black Death, too, was passed on to the Indians).
This new reading of history turns much of our modern sensibility on its head, a matter of no small import to we who face an increasingly uncertain climatological future. Global warming is already permitting tropical diseases to move north, global transportation has loosed West Nile virus and Ebola from their homelands and avian flu is, right now, infecting millions of migratory birds.
The environmental myths we have spun around natives living in the wilderness want updating, as well. What they accomplished was far more significant than living off the fat of an unspoiled New World. From Canada to Argentina, indigenous cultures had created a garden which endured for tens of thousands of years, supporting millions of people without despoiling the natural systems that kept it going.
We have wreaked environmental havoc in just a few hundred years.
In telling this tale, Mann fills in details that will sicken any but the most heartless Columbus devotees. According to contemporaneous journalists, on his second and third voyages Columbus’ men were hunting Arawak Indians for sport and feeding them to their dogs, and cutting off the hands and feet of those unwilling to be enslaved, or who aborted babies to save them from slavery.
Heavy reading this Columbus Day, to be sure. But surely required reading for teachers, students and anyone who cares to peer beyond the cloying claptrap of mythology.