“1491” by Charles C. Mann



An interesting look at what the Americas were like before European contact, somewhat revised from traditional views by recent archaeological theories.

The main “new revelation” is that Europeans hardly got to know America before it was almost unrecognizably changed. Some of the very early explorers (such as Orellana) mention countless numbers of American settlements and cities, but only a few short decades later there was almost nothing left. When the bulk of European colonists arrived, the Americas seemed like a virgin land of plenty – sparsely populated by only a few “miserable” bands of “savages.” They assumed that it had always been that way. Mann calls this “Holmberg’s Mistake” after Allan Holmberg, who described primitive populations in the Amazon in the 1940’s. Because the natives (in the Amazon and in the Americas as a whole) seemed entrenched in the Stone Age when Europeans really began studying them, Holmberg and other researchers assumed that they probably had never left it in the first place. But, evidence seems to suggest that American populations were as large and sophisticated (or more so) than European ones, but then were devastated by a calamity which wiped out 95%+ of the population in a short time and destroyed most American “civilization.”

The reason was a massive die-off from so-called zoonotic diseases (influenza, smallpox, etc) for which Americans had no immunity. The epidemics started right away; if some poor Spanish sailor wasn’t suffering from some virulent disease on Columbus’s first voyage (pop. about 90) then surely there was someone on his second (pop. about 1500). And they kept on coming. The American civilizations were more connected than one may think; even without direct European involvement, disease spread and wiped the land clean before Europeans even got there, in some cases. For example, one reason why the mighty Inca empire were such pushovers to Pizarro’s handful of soldiers was that they had been suffering through a smallpox epidemic followed by resultant political instability and civil war.

A question arises as to why wasn’t the disease transmittal a two-way path? There may be a handful of examples where it was (maybe syphillis) but generally it was European->American. The reason could be due to the availability of large stock animals and customs — Europeans and Asians living in close contact with cows, pigs, and sheep sometimes got their diseases; Americans didn’t really have any large animal analogues, except maybe llamas.

The second “revelation” was how extensively the Americans had modified their environment. Mann cites evidence of the Amazon as a giant garden, and North America being shaped by deliberate and extensive use of fire to clear old forest and encourage new growth and animal activity (for good hunting). When the Americans were killed off by disease, the stewards were gone and ecological release ensued – millions-strong herd of bison and flocks of passenger pigeons were but a few results.

Although one can hardly fault Europeans for transmitting disease to Americans (though maybe you can fault them for follow-on “hit ’em while they’re down” subjugation…), Mann still highlights the great tragedy to humankind when it lost so much knowledge and culture. One reason why we don’t know much about pre-Columbian America in the first place is because so few survivors were left to tell the tale. There was lots of just different stuff which surely would have inspired new thinking and inventions. How about the Inca knot “language”? Or, just how did Mesoamericans domesticate maize?  Mann brings up the great advances brought about by European-Asian connections; imagine what it would have been like to add a vibrant, healthy America into the mix as well.

A final thought regarding the Book of Mormon . . . a preponderance of archaeological and genetic evidence  does seems to refute a “recent” Israelite origin of Americans in favor of a trans-Bering Asian origin 20,000+ years ago.  But I think that both views can co-exist, if you think of the Lehites as a small group alongside a larger pre-existing population (which were all eventually lumped into “Lamanites”).  Fairmormon has some good info.


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