The new new world

Charles C. Mann's monumental retelling of pre-Columbian American history, "1491," illuminates the existence of civilizations as populous and sophisticated as those of the European latecomers.

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My father can’t prove it, but he’s convinced that one of his grandfathers was half Cherokee, and he can produce faded old pictures of his mother showing high, angled cheekbones that are distinctively non-European. My mother’s side of the family has long taken outsize pride in having an ancestor who was the first governor of Baja, Calif.; only recently did we come across clear evidence that we were actually the adopted poor relations of this family, that is, not Spanish nobility but mestizos of mixed race.

I’d always been curious about this Native American blood flowing in my veins, but like most Americans, I felt confused trying to make sense of the legacy of the people who lived in the Americas before Europeans showed up. The stories we were fed as kids, starting with the tale of the happy local Indians showing up in Plymouth for the first Thanksgiving, always had a bogus, Disney-filtered feel to them, yet there was no alternative narrative beyond the famous image of a proud old Indian, Iron Eyes Cody, shedding a tear at the rape of his people’s land. This weeping-Indian image, too, presented pity and guilt in lieu of a real understanding of who these people were and how they lived. There was always a sense that Native Americans had been robbed not only of their land, but of their historical importance as well. Yet, any such thoughts got lost in a gooey, dreamy kind of Indian chic, summed up by those phantasmagorical peyote scenes Oliver Stone tossed into his “Doors” movie.

Charles C. Mann has solved this problem. As he explains in a useful preface to “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” Mann had been waiting, at least since the early 1990s, for someone to publish a book pulling together the wealth of research conducted in recent years to redefine radically how we think of our continent’s history. But no one did. He finally decided that he was going to have to write the book himself. “1491″ is less a self-contained work per se and more an induction ceremony into what, for many readers, promises to be a lifelong obsession with the startling new perspective slowly opening up on this prehistory.

What’s most shocking about “1491″ is the feeling it induces of waking up from a long dream and slowly realizing just how thoroughly one has been duped. We all knew there were problems with the old narrative of brave European settlers crossing the Atlantic to find an empty continent, but it’s jarring to discover, as Mann tells us, that in 1491 there were almost certainly more people living in the Americas than in Europe — and that, in many ways, American civilizations of the time were as advanced as anything across the ocean.

We were taught in school that nomadic peoples scampered across a land bridge over the Bering Strait roughly 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age — so how could such thriving societies have developed in the relatively short period of time? Mann has an intriguing explanation, which even in the time since his book went to press has been echoed in press accounts of new findings in science: The old narrative was probably wrong. It now appears likely that even if people did move across the Bering Strait then and make their way south, they did not find an empty continent. Recent discoveries at a place called Monte Verde in southern Chile indicate that early humans were there at least 12,800 years ago.

“All of this is speculative, to say the least, and may well be wrong,” Mann sums up. “Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years.”

Let that time frame sink in a minute. Then think about what was going on over on the other side of the Atlantic.

“Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the ‘New World,’” Mann writes. “Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.”

For comparison’s sake, new research out of Germany indicates that Europe’s earliest civilization existed nearly 7,000 years ago and was centered on what is now Dresden, Germany. This early European civilization, if that is the name for it, lingers on in the shape of more than 150 earthen temples discovered in Germany, Austria and Slovakia, but researchers are only in the first stages of figuring out who the people were who built them and how they lived.

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“It’s hard to say what they were,” Christoph Heiermann, a spokesman for the Archaeological Heritage Service and State Museum for Prehistory in Dresden, told Salon. “They were central locations for the people, certainly. Maybe they were market squares, and served for some kind of rites, but we don’t know that. We don’t even know who the people were. We have no written sources from that time. There must have been some central organization that was able to organize people to do that, but we don’t know if they had a chief or a king or some sort of parliament.”

Networks of massive man-made mounds were also one of the defining characteristics of a city-state called Cahokia, not far from present-day St. Louis. Cahokia was advanced enough in the period from 950 to 1250 A.D. to have at least 15,000 inhabitants (“comparable in size to London,” Mann notes) and to build massive mound structures, including one called Monks Mound. “Its core is a slab of clay about 900 feet long, 650 feet wide, and more than 20 feet tall,” Mann writes.

Further excavation and analysis may provide more answers about Cahokia and the many other historical riddles Mann explores, or it may not; uncertainty pervades all research in this general area, and Mann is wise enough not to run from the doubt. Instead, he weaves it through his portraits of groundbreaking researchers and theorists to turn their stories into mini-mysteries. That is, he makes you wait before you see how the volume of evidence stacks up, and often takes you first through alternative theories that turn out not to have had legs. This works because Mann has a knack for explaining complex ideas in crisp, clear language; he almost never lapses into the kind of geek-having-fun speak that can sometimes make science writing cloying.

Mann is especially good on the subject of Native American agriculture. In 2003, in a piece that was chosen for an annual collection of the best science writing, he presented the startling notion that the Amazon rain forest has for so long been so thoroughly — and so skillfully — manipulated by Amazonian Indians that it probably makes sense just to go ahead and call it a work of art. He covers that territory here as a well, making a persuasive case that our predecessors in the Americas used fire in far more creative ways than has been understood up to now. Soil scientists marvel at the existence of a very rich, dark soil in the Amazon called terra preta de Indio. This, it turns out, is largely man-made. The fruit trees that are so plentiful in the Amazon? Planted by man. According to a recent study cited by Mann, the Indians living in the lower Amazon were growing more than 138 crops as far back as 4,000 years ago. One Spanish expedition into the Amazon in the 1540s came across a settlement so large and developed, its homes and well-tended gardens lined the river for more than a hundred miles and hundreds of thousands of people showed up to greet the visiting foreigners.

The most remarkable accomplishment in the Americas may be the development of maize, which has since spread throughout the world. Mann details a dispute between different factions arguing over just how maize came into existence, but both sides agree that this development began more than 6,000 years ago in southern Mexico, probably in the highlands. Mann cites Nina Fedoroff, a geneticist at Pennsylvania State University, who wrote in 2003 that maize was “arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”

So corn, that great symbol of the American heartland, turns out to be an ingenious triumph of man over nature. What about the great herds of bison that European settlers found swarming over the Great Plains? Surely these had been there going back many millennia? Actually, no. Mann makes a persuasive case that North American Indians not only created the large grasslands that provided the bison’s ideal habitat — which foolish visiting Europeans assumed had been created naturally — but they also kept the bison population regulated. It was only when the Indian population was decimated by wave after wave of epidemic in the years after the dirty, disease-ridden Europeans showed up that the bison herds propagated wildly. “Hernando De Soto’s expedition staggered through the Southeast for four years in the early sixteenth century and saw hordes of people but apparently didn’t see a single bison,” Mann writes. “When Indians died, the shaggy creatures vastly extended both their range and numbers … The massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again.”

Bison herds as pathological outbreaks, the land-based equivalent of red tides in the Gulf of Mexico? Mann does it again and again, slipping in so many fresh, new interpretations of American history that it all adds up to a deeply subversive work: Our national self-conception is built around our roots as a European spinoff, one allowed to evolve on its own thanks to the happy accident of discovering this big, bountiful vacant lot known as North America. This whole notion of an empty continent just sitting there waiting for a collection of religious fanatics, adventurers and outcasts to drift on over from Europe and reinvent themselves as pilgrims and pioneers was always problematic, but it has retained its place in our history books.

Indians, robbed of their history and deprived of their voices, have never made much headway against the pretty myth of their existence: enlightened simple people living in gentle harmony with nature, ever careful not to disrupt their surroundings. In fact, as Mann carefully lays out for us, they remade their surroundings in profound ways that never occurred to Europeans. The Amazon rain forest as giant orchard — if it’s true, and few who give Mann a fair and thorough reading will doubt that it is, that would make the Amazon humanity’s greatest creation.

“Of the 138 known domesticated plant species in the Amazon, more than half are trees,” Mann explains. “Sopodilla, calabash, and tucuma; babacu, acai, and wild pineapple; cocopalm, American-oil palm, and Panama-hat palm — the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts and palms is justly celebrated. ‘Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees,’” an anthropological botanist tells Mann. “‘That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.’”

The first Europeans to visit the Americas were often more willing than their descendants to give credit where credit was due. The conquistador-turned-priest Bartolome de Las Casas, for example, “repeatedly described indigenous America as a crowded, jostling place  ‘a beehive of people,’ as (he) put it in 1542. To Las Casas, the Americas seemed so thick with people ‘that it looked as if God has placed all of or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries.’” Las Casas estimated the toll of Spanish disease and violence at more than 12 million, and then kept upping his estimate — later settling on 40 million. It was only later on that people took to casting such figures as exaggerations, all the better to avoid difficult questions about where the perpetrators of this calamity rate on the all-time list of historical criminals.

The American Revolution was at its core an extension of European values, but Mann finds it interesting to look at the ways that context helped create a new American identity. “Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality,” Mann writes. “Northeastern Indians were appalled by the European propensity to divide themselves into social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper … Historians have been puzzlingly reluctant to acknowledge this contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Think of I. Bernard Cohen claiming that Enlightenment philosophers derived their ideas of freedom from Newtonian physics, when a plain reading of their texts shows that Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the Boston Colonists who held their anti-British Tea Party dressed as ‘Mohawks.’”

Mann asks what it would be like to be sent whirling back through time to 1491 to meet up face to face with a member of the Haudenosaunee, whose progressive constitution — forged before the Europeans ever reached North America — stands as a marvel of early public policy. “Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors?”

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