Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society
New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
About the Author: Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly, and has co-written four previous books including Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species and The Second Creation. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has won awards from the American Bar Association, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. His writing was selected for The Best American Science Writing 2003 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003.
Imagine an airplane journey in the early eleventh century A.D. that takes off from eastern Bolivia in South America and flies over the rest of the Western Hemisphere. What would be visible from the windows? Only fifty years ago most historians would have predicted two continents of wilderness with scattered bands of people who were working their way toward civilization. This is wrong: new information seriously challenges accounts of the numbers of Indians and the length of time they had been living in the Western Hemisphere when Columbus arrived. We’ll consider one example.
On the border with Brazil there is a nearly flat Bolivian province called the Beni, the size of Illinois and Indiana together. Scattered across the landscape are numberless island-like earthen mounds topped by forests and bridged by raised berms up to three miles long. Each mound is stabilized by broken pottery that is mixed into its earthen construction and rises as much as sixty feet above the flood plain that allows trees to grow that cannot live in water.
Thirty years ago, the understanding was that Indians lived there in isolated groups and had so little impact on their environment that after millennia the continents remained mostly wilderness. Clark Erickson, an archaeologist, says this picture is mistaken in every respect: the landscape of the Beni was constructed by a populous, technologically advanced Indian society more than a thousand years ago. Much of the savannah of the Beni is natural, but there is evidence that the Indians trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grasslands by fashioning fish-corralling fences among the causeways. The grasslands were maintained and expanded by regularly setting fire to large parts of them, which is still done today to maintain the savannah for cattle.
The Siriono are the best known of a number of Native American groups in the Beni today. Between 1940 and 1942 a young doctoral student in anthropology named Allan R. Holmberg lived among them, and published an account in 1950 of his experience in Nomads of the Longbow. Holmberg reported that the Siriono lived with want and hunger and could neither count nor make fire and seemed to practice no religion except for an uncrystallized conception of the universe. He saw them as primitive humankind living in a raw state of nature that for millennia had existed almost without change. Quickly recognized as a classic, the book provided an enduring image of South American Indians to the outside world.
Holmberg was mistaken.
Researchers, in the 1990s, learned that the Siriono were indeed a desperately impoverished people but for different reasons. They had arrived in the Beni as late as the seventeenth century, and their population had been at least three thousand. By the time Holmberg encountered them, less than 150 people had survived the smallpox and influenza that had destroyed their villages in the 1920s. As the epidemics hit them they were also fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region, and the Bolivian government aided the ranchers by hunting down the Siriono. The wandering people that Holmberg had traveled with in the forest were actually the persecuted survivors.
Missionaries and conquistadors brought the idea back to Spain and Europe that Native Americans lived passively with little to no effect on their environment. Over time various forms of this stereotype were embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them.
It was only when new tools and disciplines, such as demography, climatology, carbon-14 dating and ice-core sampling; satellite photography, soil assays, and genetic microsatellite analysis were employed that the idea that the indigenous occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed their environment so little over thousands of years began to look implausible.
And our misunderstanding of Bolivia is but one part of our mistake about what America was like in 1492: After Columbus sailed into the Western Hemisphere and traders and colonists soon followed, a phenomenon called ecological release occurred. Throughout the hemisphere ecosystems faltered, colonists in Jamestown complained about the scourge of rats they had accidentally imported. Tame European clover and blue grass transformed themselves and swept through areas so quickly that the first English colonists in Kentucky found both species waiting for them. And peaches in the southeast that previously had not grown in the wild proliferated so much that eighteenth-century farmers feared the Carolinas would become a wilderness of peach trees!
South America was hit especially hard. Spinach and endive, escaping from colonial gardens, grew into impassable, six-foot thickets on the Peruvian coast, and mint took over the valleys higher up in the Andes. In the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, the voyager, Charles Darwin, saw hundreds of square miles choked by feral artichoke and found that peach wood had become the main supply of firewood in Buenos Aires. Some invasions canceled each other out, for example, the plague of endive in Peru may have been checked by a simultaneous plague of rats that overran the land and destroyed crops.
Until Columbus, Indians were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere. They annually burned undergrowth, cleared and replanted forests, built canals and raised fields, hunted bison and netted salmon, and grew maize and manioc. Native Americans had been managing their environments for thousands of years. By and large, they modified their landscapes in stable and intelligent ways.
Some areas of maize have been farmed for thousands of years. In Peru, for instance, where irrigated terraces of crops covered huge areas, wholesale transformations were carried out in an exceptional way. All of these efforts required close and continual oversight, but in the sixteenth century, epidemics removed the checks and balances. After 1492 American landscapes were emptied of Native Americans, which deregulated the ecosystems. The forests that the first New England colonists thought were primeval and enduring were actually in the midst of violent change and demographic collapse.