Former civilizations here

The news in this book is that the New World was an old world. It was far more populated, far more developed, far longer before the arrival of Columbus, then orthodox history believes. Charles Mann makes the best case yet, in non-technical prose, for the emerging archeological view that native Americans (north and south) had created vast cities and civilizations on a scale that dwarfed Europe at the time. These bustling cities, not just in MesoAmerica, but in the Mississippi and the Amazon, were erased into invisibility ahead of settlers (and textbooks) by disease and environmental factors. In scope this book is a good compliment to Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel. But 1491 heightens the discrepancy of development described by Diamond because now we see how far along American civilizations were before they unraveled on contact with the old world.

When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about thirteen thousand years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remained mostly wilderness. Schools still impart the same ideas today. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balee would be to say that they regard this picture of Indian life as wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.

In 1501, just nine years after Columbus's first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings. As James Axtell has noted, Corte-Real probably was able to kidnap such a large number of people only because the Indians were already so comfortable dealing with Europeans that big groups willingly came aboard his ship.

The British and French, many of whom had not taken a bath in their entire lives, were amazed by the Indian interest in personal cleanliness. A Jesuit reported that the "savages" were disgusted by handkerchiefs: "They say, we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground." The Micmac in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia scoffed at the notion of European superiority. If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants all trying to settle somewhere else?

It is true that European technology dazzled Native Americans on first encounter. But the relative positions of the two sides were closer than commonly believed. Contemporary research suggests that indigenous peoples in New England were not technologically inferior to the British -- or, rather that terms like "superior" and "inferior" do not readily apply to the relationship between Indian and European technology.

Guns are an example. As Chaplin, the Harvard historian, has argued, New England Indians were indeed disconcerted by their first experiences with European guns: the explosion and smoke, the lack of a visible projectile. But the natives soon learned that most of the British were terrible shots, from lack of practice -- their guns were little more than noisemakers. Even for a crack shot, a seventeenth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than my be supposed. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious of an arrow shot. To the colonists' dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep, "which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it."

Utterly without fear, De Soto ignored the taunts and occasional volleys of arrows and poled over the river into what is now Eastern Arkansas, a land '"thickly set with great towns," according to the account, "two or three of them to be seen from one." Each city protected itself with earthen walls, sizable moats, and deadeye archers. In his brazen fashion, De Soto marched right in, demanded food, and marched out.

After De Soto left, no Europeans visited this part of the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. Early in 1682 white people appeared again, this time Frenchmen in canoes. In one seat was Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. La Salle passed through the area where De Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was deserted -- the French didn't see an Indian village for two hundred miles. About fifty settlements existed in this strip of the Mississippi when De Soto showed up, according to Anne Ramenofsky, an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico. By La Salle's time the number had shrunk to perhaps ten, some probably inhabited by recent immigrants. De Soto "had a privileged glimpse" of an Indian world, Hudson told me. "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 Caddo had a taste for monumental architecture; public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After De Soto's army left the Caddo stopped erecting community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between the visits of De Soto and La Salle, according to Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, 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 would reduce the population of New York City to 56,000, not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. "That's one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters" Russell, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said to me. "Everything else - -all the heavily populated urbanized societies -- was wiped out."

01/19/06 -- KK