Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Basically, it reviews the current state of knowledge of pre-Columbian life in the Americas, and makes the argument that those vanished civilizations were far more advanced, populous, and aggressively technological than has generally been believed. As it says in the introduction to an interview with Mann (the body of which is unfortunately available only to subscribers):
I will admit that I’ve always thought there was something funny about the idea of two whole continents inhabited only by drifty, timeless Indian tribes that stayed small, and evidenced very little technological development from millennium to millennium. As far as I know, human populations will pretty infallibly outbreed their local resources, causing them to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and go over to settled agriculture, animal husbandry, and the invention of gods, beer, and labor-saving devices. So why was the Western Hemisphere full of bitty semi-nomadic tribes living on prime agricultural land?
For years the standard view of North America before Columbus’s arrival was as a vast, grassy expanse teeming with game and all but empty of people. Those who did live here were nomads who left few marks on the land. South America, too, or at least the Amazon rain forest, was thought of as almost an untouched Eden, now suffering from modern depredations. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that this picture is almost completely false. According to this school of thought, the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’s arrival was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns—one scholar estimated that it held ninety to 112 million people, more than lived in Europe at the time—and Indians had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs. They used fire to create the Midwestern prairie, perfect for herds of buffalo. They also cultivated at least part of the rain forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts. Charles C. Mann in “1491” surveys the contentious debate over what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived—a debate that has important ramifications for how we manage the “wilderness” we still have left, if indeed it really is wilderness, untouched by the hand of man.
Charles C. Mann addresses that question, and others I would never have thought to ask. Happily, an earlier version of 1491 was published as an article in The Atlantic Monthly, and is available online:
The story of the settlement of the Americas isn’t one of pioneers finding themselves in an untouched Eden. They were resettling a post-holocaust landscape.
In May 30, 1539, Hernando de Soto landed his private army near Tampa Bay, in Florida. Soto, as he was called, was a novel figure: half warrior, half venture capitalist. He had grown very rich very young by becoming a market leader in the nascent trade for Indian slaves. The profits had helped to fund Pizarro’s seizure of the Incan empire, which had made Soto wealthier still. Looking quite literally for new worlds to conquer, he persuaded the Spanish Crown to let him loose in North America. He spent one fortune to make another. He came to Florida with 200 horses, 600 soldiers, and 300 pigs.
From today’s perspective, it is difficult to imagine the ethical system that would justify Soto’s actions. For four years his force, looking for gold, wandered through what is now Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, wrecking almost everything it touched. The inhabitants often fought back vigorously, but they had never before encountered an army with horses and guns. Soto died of fever with his expedition in ruins; along the way his men had managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians. But the worst thing the Spaniards did, some researchers say, was entirely without malice—bring the pigs.
According to Charles Hudson, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia who spent fifteen years reconstructing the path of the expedition, Soto crossed the Mississippi a few miles downstream from the present site of Memphis. It was a nervous passage: the Spaniards were watched by several thousand Indian warriors. Utterly without fear, Soto brushed past the Indian force into what is now eastern Arkansas, through thickly settled land—“very well peopled with large towns,” one of his men later recalled, “two or three of which were to be seen from one town.” Eventually the Spaniards approached a cluster of small cities, each protected by earthen walls, sizeable moats, and deadeye archers. In his usual fashion, Soto brazenly marched in, stole food, and marched out.
After Soto left, no Europeans visited this part of the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. Early in 1682 whites appeared again, this time Frenchmen in canoes. One of them was Réné-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. The French passed through the area where Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was deserted—La Salle didn’t see an Indian village for 200 miles. About fifty settlements existed in this strip of the Mississippi when Soto showed up, according to Anne Ramenofsky, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. By La Salle’s time the number had shrunk to perhaps ten, some probably inhabited by recent immigrants. Soto “had a privileged glimpse” of an Indian world, Hudson says. “The window opened and slammed shut. When the French came in and the record opened up again, it was a transformed reality. A civilization crumbled. The question is, how did this happen?”
The question is even more complex than it may seem. Disaster of this magnitude suggests epidemic disease. In the view of Ramenofsky and Patricia Galloway, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, the source of the contagion was very likely not Soto’s army but its ambulatory meat locker: his 300 pigs. Soto’s force itself was too small to be an effective biological weapon. Sicknesses like measles and smallpox would have burned through his 600 soldiers long before they reached the Mississippi. But the same would not have held true for the pigs, which multiplied rapidly and were able to transmit their diseases to wildlife in the surrounding forest. When human beings and domesticated animals live close together, they trade microbes with abandon. Over time mutation spawns new diseases: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes measles. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in close quarters with animals—they domesticated only the dog, the llama, the alpaca, the guinea pig, and, here and there, the turkey and the Muscovy duck. In some ways this is not surprising: the New World had fewer animal candidates for taming than the Old. Moreover, few Indians carry the gene that permits adults to digest lactose, a form of sugar abundant in milk. Non-milk-drinkers, one imagines, would be less likely to work at domesticating milk-giving animals. But this is guesswork. The fact is that what scientists call zoonotic disease was little known in the Americas. Swine alone can disseminate anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, taeniasis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis. Pigs breed exuberantly and can transmit diseases to deer and turkeys. Only a few of Soto’s pigs would have had to wander off to infect the forest.Indeed, the calamity wrought by Soto apparently extended across the whole Southeast. The Coosa city-states, in western Georgia, and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, disintegrated soon after Soto appeared. The Caddo had had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After Soto’s army left, notes Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between Soto’s and La Salle’s visits, Perttula believes, the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500—a drop of nearly 96 percent. In the eighteenth century the tally shrank further, to 1,400. An equivalent loss today in the population of New York City would reduce it to 56,000—not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. “That’s one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters,” says Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Everything else—all the heavily populated urbanized societies—was wiped out.”
Read the article. Buy the book. Any one of its subsections is worth the price of admission. This is salted peanuts for the worldbuilding turn of mind.