Amazing unknown America before Columbus

Every now and then I read a book that shows me that the world is vastly different from what I thought it was.  Such a book is 1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS by Charles C. Mann.

Mann described new research that shows American Indians is wrong existed in much greater numbers than previously believed, they created much more sophisticated and dynamic societies than previously believed, and they modified their natural environment to a much greater degree than previously understood.

Almost everything I learned in school about American Indians was wrong.  I had thought of North and South America, except for Mexico and Peru, as thinly-populated wilderness.  Now scholars understand that the American Indians, through mastery of plant breeding, horticulture and landscape architecture far beyond contemporary European practice, had turned much of the Western Hemisphere into the equivalent of a garden and managed game preserve.

All this has come to light in the past couple of decades through new archeological discoveries and a reexamination of the historical record, and through use of new scientific methods such as aerial photography, DNA and blood group testing and linguistic analysis.

The reason we knew so little about the American Indians until now is that most of them were wiped out as a result of epidemic disease caused by contact with Europeans.  The Indians lacked the immunities that Europeans had built up through contact with Old World diseases, and they also were more vulnerable because of less genetic diversity.  They also lacked experience of how to prevent infectious disease from spreading.  Mann showed how disease enabled small numbers of Spaniards to conquer the mighty Aztec and Inca empires, and the English to establish a foothold on the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

The American Indians were not only more numerous, but culturally and technically more sophisticated than I was taught they were.  While civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere originated in fertile river valleys, the Andean Indians established a civilization on the slopes of some of the world’s highest mountains.  Their basic technology was not metallurgy, but weaving; they had effective armor made of tightly woven cloth, and strong bridges across deep chasms made of rope.  They kept records in the form of knotted strings, and some researchers now think these may have been the equivalent of a written language.  If so there may be a record of a rich culture that we can’t read.

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and clean streets, both unknown in Europe at the time, and a larger population than any European city.  The Mayas independently discovered the zero.  The Mound Builders of the Mississippi valley created enormous structures, and invented a technology that prevented their elaborate clay sculptures from absorbing excessive moisture and losing their shapes.

But the greatest achievements of the American Indian civilizations were in plant breeding, horticulture and environmental management, Mann wrote.  For example, no known wild form of maize (Indian corn) is edible, yet the Indians were somehow able to transform maize into a stable food crop.

Double click to enlarge.

Archeologists in the uplands of the Amazon River watershed have found miles of raised fields, canal-like settlement mounds, circular pools, canal-like water channels, zigzig fish weirs, mile-long raised causeways and hundreds of earthworks.  The uplands were planted with peach palms and other useful plants.

North American Indians habitually burned off the underbrush and forest in order to create habitat for buffalo and other large game animals.  Some of the forest that came back consisted of trees planted by Indians rather than wild growth.

The American Indians were not at the mercy of their physical environment.  They managed their environment.  Mann thinks the Indians showed the way we today should think—neither in terms of the conquest of nature nor the preservation of wilderness, but working with and managing nature to achieve human ends.

Artists’ conception of Mound Builder city near site of St. Louis, Missouri.

The last section of the book is about the Great Law of Peace, the successful, democratic form of government established by Deganawidah, the lawgiver and prophet of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  The Haudenosaunee were noted for their love of personal freedom and disrespect for authority, and Mann thinks their example might have influenced the egalitarian, individualistic strain of the United States national character.

I have mentioned only a part of what is in the book, which itself is only a part of the new discoveries being made about Western Hemisphere history.  Certainly there is much more to learn, and Mann’s book, first published in 2005 and updated in 2011, will not be the last word.

Click on Charles C. Mann – 1491 – The Atlantic for an article by Mann about the findings in his book.

Click on Cahokia Mounds for more about the Mound Builders and the source of the picture above.

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One Response to “Amazing unknown America before Columbus”

  1. informationforager Says:

    i’ve read the same book. It is very good and it’s a real eye-opener. His book 1493 is good also. Thanks.


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