Interviews March 2002

The Pristine Myth

Charles C. Mann, the author of "1491," talks about the thriving and sophisticated Indian landscape of the pre-Columbus Americas
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The Long Marriage
by Maxine Kumin
W.W. Norton & Company
72 pages, $21

For years the standard view of North America before Columbus's arrival was as a vast, grassy expanse teeming with game and all but empty of people. Those who did live here were nomads who left few marks on the land. South America, too, or at least the Amazon rain forest, was thought of as almost an untouched Eden, now suffering from modern depredations. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that this picture is almost completely false. According to this school of thought, the Western Hemisphere before Columbus's arrival was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns—one scholar estimated that it held ninety to 112 million people, more than lived in Europe at the time—and Indians had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs. They used fire to create the Midwestern prairie, perfect for herds of buffalo. They also cultivated at least part of the rain forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts. Charles C. Mann, in "1491" (March Atlantic), surveys the contentious debate over what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived—a debate that has important ramifications for how we manage the "wilderness" we still have left, if indeed it really is wilderness, untouched by the hand of man.

If it is true that the pre-Columbus Americas had tens of millions of people and highly developed civilizations, what happened? Why were there so few traces when the conquistadors and the colonists began to arrive in earnest? One demographer has estimated, according to Mann, that "in the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died—the worst demographic calamity in recorded history." Others think this number is too high. But what is clear from oral history accounts is that Europeans who arrived early on found busy, thriving societies. When John Smith visited Massachusetts in 1614, he wrote that the land was "so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people ... [that] I would rather live here than any where." But by the time the colonists reached Plymouth in the Mayflower six years later, they found one deserted village after another—the Indians had been felled by European diseases to which they had little resistance. Mann writes,

All through the coastal forest the Indians had "died on heapes, as they lay in their houses," the English trader Thomas Morton noted. "And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle" that to Morton the Massachusetts woods seemed to be "a new found Golgotha"—the hill of executions in Roman Jerusalem.

The debate over how many Indians lived in the Americas will perhaps never be settled—there is too little archaeological evidence, and too many variables required to calculate their population. Mann makes clear, though, that the contributions of these civilizations were myriad—from corn to tomatoes to ways of sustainably managing land—and we would do well to learn from them.

Mann is an Atlantic correspondent. We corresponded by e-mail last week.

—Katie Bacon


Within certain communities—archaeological, anthropological, environmental—there is bitter debate over how many Indians were in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus's arrival, and how actively they managed the land. Could you sketch out why this is such a polemical issue?

The debate over Indian demography gets emotional pretty fast. The greater the pre-contact population, the greater the tally of post-contact losses, and the greater the pre-contact human impact on the environment. Some people don't like scholars who argue for a huge death tally, because it feels to them like another self-hating spasm of political correctness—an academic left-wing attack on Western civilization as inherently murderous. Others don't like the high numbers because they want to view the pre-contact environment as an ecological touchstone—nature as it oughta be. Having too many Indians around interferes with this. They think that arguing that there is no wilderness, no preferred state, is a right-wing strategy for legitimizing a corporate assault on the environment.

In the opening scene of your article, you're flying in a small plane with some scholars over the Beni in Bolivia, a watery plain of 30,000 square miles with islands of forest linked by raised berms. Some scientists believe that this entire landscape was created by a populous society that lived 2,000 years ago. Another group sees little evidence that there was large-scale human habitation of the area. How could there be two such different interpretations of the same landscape? What are your thoughts on the problems inherent in trying to research something where there's so little historical record? And what sort of archaeological evidence do the various factions use to back up their claims?

There's actually more historical record than one might think—the problem is how to interpret it. Many Spanish accounts exist of what the Americas were like just after contact, and also of what Indians said life was like in the years before, but scholars differ on how much to believe these accounts. Similarly, researchers differ on how to treat ecological questions. Some people say, for instance, that the poor soils in Amazonia would have made intensive agriculture unfeasible, and thus there simply could not have been large-scale societies—that would have been impossible. Others say that the poor soils might have made things difficult for conventional agriculture, but agriculture based on trees—remember all those nuts and fruits in the tropics?—could well have been productive enough to sustain large numbers of people. So scholars begin from different assumptions. In the Beni, the area in eastern Bolivia that I visited, the savanna has scores or hundreds of high, forested mounds where the soil is literally thick with pottery fragments—you dig six inches and the soil is half ceramics. To some archaeologists, this suggests (bearing in mind ecological limits) multiple reoccupations by small groups of people. In this view, the mounds are based on natural formations or were built up more or less by accident. To others, this seems ridiculous—the mounds were of course deliberately constructed, they say. And that would take many people. In both cases, how scientists look at the evidence is deeply influenced by their views on larger issues like the role of ecological limits and, I think, their ideas on what humankind is like. Newer archaeologists—to generalize perhaps too much for a moment—tend to think that people are enormously energetic and clever about overcoming obstacles in the natural world. Older ones are more likely to be humbled by ecological limits and (perhaps) more stringent about interpreting data. (Close-minded, their opponents would say.) Many scientific arguments eventually devolve into disputes over details and procedures that are difficult for outsiders to judge. But the archaeologists and anthropologists who are in favor of a larger Indian presence seem to be winning the argument within their disciplines, at least for now. Supposedly Thomas Kuhn (or a philosopher of science like him) said that disputes between researchers are never resolved, but the side with more young scientists wins because it outlives the other side. And it seems that more young people hold this view.

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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