Journalist and science writer Charles Mann has an investigator's skepticism
and a scientist's yearning to cover new ground. In "1491: New Revelations
of the Americas Before Columbus," he describes an extraordinary medley of
research and personal experiences to support three fundamental hypotheses:
the accepted estimate of the number of American Indians inhabiting the
Western Hemisphere in 1492 is much too low; Indian societies were more
complex, more technologically accomplished and older than archaeologists
and anthropologists (though not Indians themselves) have previously
thought; and indigenous peoples did not live in a pristine wilderness but
managed and modified their environments to an astonishing degree.

Mann cited linguistic, dental and DNA research that strongly suggests the
Bering Strait "ice corridor" theory that has Paleo-Indians not arriving in
North America until the end of the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago is
wrong, that the New World may have been populated by as many as 112 million
people before Columbus landed, and that what the Pilgrims and other early
Europeans saw as a pristine wilderness inhabited by savages -- noble and
otherwise -- was probably the result of the massive depopulation that had
occurred since first contact.

"[We have come to an] awareness that Native Americans may have been in the
Americas for 20,000 or even 30,000 years. Given that the Ice Age made
Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some 18,000 years ago,
the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the 'New
World,'" wrote Mann.

He posited the existence of many urbanized, technologically advanced
civilizations throughout the Americas and argued that the Neolithic
Revolution occurred not only in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley (Iraq), the
Nile Delta (Egypt), the Indus Valley (Pakistan) and the Yellow River
(China), but also in Mesoamerica and Peru, evidence for the latter coming
to light just in this century.

But as diseases such as viral hepatitis, smallpox, measles and influenza
swept inland from the coasts, they decimated cultures that Europeans never
even knew existed. The first European explorations, whether in New England
or Peru, were of places that had already been depopulated and of
civilizations that had already been lost to time and climate. Shoreline
settlements, for example, might show that Paleo-Indians came not across the
Bering Strait on foot but down the western coast of the Americas by boat,
but that evidence is gone because the sea level has risen in the
intervening millennia.

Among the accomplishments that Mann attributes to the Americas are the
milpa (a mixed-crop garden that provides an ecologically and nutritionally
complementary diet); writing that dates back to 750 B.C.; timekeeping, with
an extraordinarily complex and accurate calendar that began Aug. 13, 3114
B.C.; the invention of zero, probably about 32 B.C., centuries ahead of
India; and the invention of the wheel, which he speculates was not used for
practical purposes because Mesoamerica had no draft animals.

Finally, he discussed indigenous peoples' use of fire to modify the
environment to meet human needs. For example, instead of domesticating
animals, the Indians used fire to change the ecosystem to create grasslands
where animals could thrive, and then they hunted those animals to keep
their numbers down. In Amazonia, he stated, the original inhabitants may
have used a "slash and char" technology to improve the poor rainforest
soil, and then planted orchards of trees, which not only provided food but
protected the soil and other food crops from being destroyed by pounding

"They [the indigenous peoples of the Amazon] were in the midst of
terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything,"
Mann wrote.

The main weakness of this volume is also its major strength. The weakness
is that most of the research Mann cites has been done in the past 15 years,
much of it just in the last five -- meaning that it has not been fully
evaluated or analyzed, much less integrated into a coherent theory of the
Americas before 1491.

On the other hand, lay audiences seldom have the opportunity to look at
current research in any field; usually what we read has been hashed over
for decades, and often it contains the same mistakes that have been
accepted for years. Here we have the chance to learn what the most current
research is suggesting and to begin to think about how it may change our
view of the world. Given the ethnocentric and biased views that have been
put forward by some professionals in the past, this is a rare opportunity
and a must-read book.

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