Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rethinking America Before Columbus

Of all that could be said of the erased cultures of the indigenous first Americans, perhaps the greatest lamentation is that most of them did not, or could not, leave behind a written record of the days before the European explorers and immigrants, leaving their stories to be endlessly mangled and distorted, the subject of both endless fantasy and speculation. Of course there are modern Native writers like the late Vine Deloria attempting to add a sense of perspective, and the historical record of nations captured in their moment of confrontation with the new, second Americans, but outside Central America and Mexico the voices of the pre-Columbian Americans can only be interpolated from relics and ruins not from written testaments.

Much writing on Native history suffers from twin distortions: on the one hand those anxious to ultimately excuse the genocide of the Indians as an act of historical progress, or those looking to objectify Indians as dreamily lost environmentalist naifs, too spiritual and too innocent to survive the confrontation with Europeans. That image of the weeping Indian from that 1970s TV pollution ad twins so perfectly with the whooping, scalping savages of a thousand Westerns.

One of the best books I have read recently on American Indians avoids these pitfalls. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann discusses the state of North and South America before the arrival of the Europeans. Based on archeological, geological, anthropological and historical evidence, Mann radically reinterprets the clues left behind to come up with a fairly revolutionary, and apparently controversial, comprehensive view of Native American civilization at odds with most of the myths of popular imagination.

One of the most exciting of Mann's arguments is his debunking of the notion that the America the early European explorers arrived at was some kind of pristine, near-empty natural paradise. Mann sees the massive herds of buffalo, the incredible overabundance of animal life as evidence not of ecological balance, but of a sudden ecological imbalance brought on by the collapse of local human population. He shows how Indians shaped their environment through well-developed agricultural practices including forestry management using controlled burnoffs. He suggests that North America was filled with vibrant permanent settlements--cities like Cahokia!--home to millions of people at a much higher level of development than that of nomadic hunter gatherers. He suggests that a sudden die-off of native populations happened out of sight of Europeans due to the spread of disease from the early limited 15th- and 16th-century incursions long before the 17th-century wave of European immigration and settlement. Thus the "pristine" forests and huge animal populations were the boomerang of human catastrophe as the human population suddenly plummeted.

Mann also similarly argues that the vast Amazon forests are the legacy of previous civilization. He looks at the ground itself and sees evidence not of mere human subsistence agriculture but of radical terracing and irrigation practices that reshaped the landscape and harnessed its fertility.

Again and again he reinterprets the evidence in North, Central and South America and challenges convential history. The resulting view of Indian cultures, of American Indian civilization, is far more nuanced, far more complex, and far more respectful of its achievements. Ultimately it humanizes the original Native Americans by de-mythologizing them, turning them into people of historical achievement rather than people of myth.

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