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.