1491

I just completed reading (listening to, audio-book) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (thanks for the loan Phil H).  One of the best things this book does is to question, and more often dismantle, commonly held myths about the Americas and the people who lived here before European contact.  Mann utilizes both the latest archeological and genetic findings, along with the earliest European accounts of contact with Indian peoples.  Although the details continue to be up for debate, there is an emerging scholarly consensus that the pre-1492 Americas of our text books and cultural myths, and the Americas as they actually were before European contact are two very different places.  Here are a few things I learned:

– I had known that disease was a significant killer of American Indians, but had not realized the extent to which it decimated whole populations and civilizations.  Because Europeans had long lived side by side with domesticated pigs and cows, they had exchanged microbes with and developed immunities to the more deadly diseases these animals can carry.  When these people and animals were brought into contact with a people who had never been exposed to them before, the results were devastating, some areas possibly losing up to 95% of their populations.  Early European arrivals on the New England seaboard observed that the shores were lined with villages and that it was too dense for white settlement.  By the time the Mayflower landed, over 100 years after first contact, the same villages were vacant.  In South America the massive Incan Empire perhaps lost 50% of its population to disease before Pizarro and his troops landed and subjugated the reeling population.

– I hadn’t realized that the Ice Age Bering Strait migration is no longer the dominant theory of the introduction of humans into the Americas.  Archeological and genetic evidence points to settlements as old as 40,000 years, groups perhaps arriving from Siberia in boats.

– One of the most powerful myths is that of the foraging Indian living lightly in the wilderness.  But evidence repeatedly shows that different Indian cultures actively managed and sometimes massively altered their landscapes to better suit their needs.  Indian agriculture has provided over half of today’s global food supply (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, and peppers were all domesticated in the Americas).  Many Indian civilizations, beyond just the Maya, Aztec, and Incas, were urban and cosmopolitan.  Many of the prairies were regularly burned to maintain it as a pasture for grazing animals.  Many nut trees in the eastern forest (chestnut, hickory, oak, beech) were most likely planted as a form of perennial gardening.  Maybe most surprising is that the Amazon forest – that massive stretch sometimes considered as the epitome of pristine wilderness – could instead very likely be the world’s largest abandoned orchard.

Although the timing wasn’t intentional, this does happen to coincide with the approach of Thanksgiving when some of these myths are at their strongest – and when we call to mind what we are grateful for.

+ This history is difficult stuff.  I have no idea what to do with some of it except be in mourning.

+ It’s good to have our myths challenged, especially when it makes us more humble.

+ As one who is drawn to ‘wilderness,’ I hear a message that humans, and other animals for that matter, always live in a dynamic relationship with our environment and the question is not whether or not we will have an impact, but what kind of impact we will have.

+ I’m grateful to be alive, and to have the responsibility to live well.

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