Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Americas Before 1492

Last month my book group read 1491 by Charles C. Mann and wow did that book explode myths and point out fallacies about indigenous people living in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Reading that book caused a shift in my perception of reality. It had such an impact on me that I want to share with you the main points. The research supporting these assertions is in the book. Mann provides extensive scientific, historical, archaeological, and anthropological documentation. (Compare my synopsis below to what your school textbooks told you was true!)

First point:  Many more, vastly more indigenous people lived in the Americas (North, South, and Central) than previously thought. The Americas were not populated by many small, isolated tribes before Columbus arrived. They were populated by large cultures numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In fact, there were just as many people in the Americas as there were in Europe in 1492 – or approximately 100 million in each region (not a mere 1 million in the Americas as previously thought). There were large metropolises and civilizations extending over vast areas. What the first European explorers found as they spread out into the Americas were the sad remnants of these enormous thriving cultures, which had been decimated, often annihilated completely, by diseases brought over by the Europeans. They found destroyed cultures and broken people, the few survivors of massive epidemics that spread like wildfire the instant Europeans (and their pigs and rodents) stepped foot in the Americas. These epidemics killed most (99 million) of the indigenous population.

Second point:  The indigenous people living in some areas of the Americas have been here since the end of the Ice Age, or at least 25,000 years (and perhaps for as long as 40,000 years). Manmade stone spear tips have been found in the bones of woolly mammoths on this continent. Although some indigenous people may have traveled across the Bering Strait Land Bridge (remember learning that in school?), most of them evolved in place here in the Americas and did not travel here from a different continent. Thus, there was not one “cradle of civilization” in Mesopotamia (as previously thought), but more than one location where civilization was born and some of those locations were in the Americas.

Third point:  Ancient civilizations in the Americas were not only large and not only present a very long time ago, but they were extremely sophisticated and complex. There is evidence of massive agricultural operations, extensive cities, roadways, bridges, water systems, written language, mathematical calculations, scientific understanding, and more. These were not “primitive” ignorant people by any measure.

Fourth point:  These indigenous people who inhabited the ancient Americas were not necessarily good stewards of the ecosystems in which they lived. We seem to be wedded to the image of the Native American crying for the destruction of the environment; stuck in the belief that indigenous people live in harmony with the earth, that they are the original environmentalists. Yet Mann gives one example after another of ancient civilizations in the Americas that exhausted the land on which they lived and destroyed it, resulting in their own extinction. He describes one culture in South America that cleared acres and acres of forest and planted maize to feed a metropolis of hundreds of thousands of citizens. In one year of drought, the maize “plantation” surrounding this city deteriorated into an eroded desert incapable of supporting life and the inhabitants of the city starved to death. End of that civilization. There’s a lesson to us for this day and age (one would hope).

Amazon Rainforest

Fifth point:  Much of the terrain of the Americas, by the time Columbus arrived, had been consciously and deliberately developed by indigenous cultures and civilizations over the course of thousands of years. In other words, the Americas were planted by those who lived here before 1492. Forests were planted. Whole ecosystems were “introduced” or specifically arranged to sustain human life. The shape of the land was not as random as one would think. Mann describes the many techniques used by indigenous cultures to develop the land to their satisfaction. Very convincing.

Sixth point (an extension of the fifth):  The Amazon Rainforest is one big garden deliberately, carefully, and conscientiously planted by indigenous people. One of Mann’s supports for this argument is that almost every tree in the Rainforest bears an edible fruit. The indigenous people of the Rainforest did not have the metal plow (as did the Europeans). They had stone tools. It is nearly impossible to clear fields with stone tools. So they planted trees, which would offer decades of productivity. The Rainforest is an orchard. It is in fact a “built environment.” (Lots of research backs this up – check it out if you doubt it.) Furthermore, anthropologists and soil experts have discovered in the Amazon Basin large swaths of “terra prieta,” a rich, fertile earth, terrific for agriculture, that is believed to be created by humans and is not found to originate in nature. This terra prieta covers more than 10% of the Amazon Basin. Scientists believe that this rich soil (which, by the way, recreates itself ongoing) was developed. It was generated by a cluster of microorganisms that self-perpetuate. (Much more on this topic in Mann’s book.)

Reading 1491 reminds me to keep my mind open to the possibility that what I know about the world is a moving walkway and that each of us creates our own reality by what we perceive and what we understand to be the truth. The truth is fluid.

This is a passion flower, which grows in the Amazon Rainforest and also in my backyard, 
where I planted it. It's gorgeous, dramatic, and bees love it!

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