I recently finished reading Charles C. Mann’s 2006 book: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.  Mann makes no pretense to presenting discoveries made by himself.  Rather, he is summarizing the work of archaeologists and anthropologists of the past 30 years.  But he tells his story well.  And the result is a book that basically says that everything you believed about the peoples of America prior to 1492 is false.

The story starts with–and really all hinges on–the assertion that the pre-Columbian Americans were much more numerous than was previously supposed.  Once that fact is accepted, pretty much everything else follows.  These very numerous Indians, in Mann’s account, were decimated by the illnesses brought by the first Europeans.  By 1700, the population decline was in the 90% range.

The biggest consequence of this shift in our understanding of the demographics is to insist that the pre-Colunbians were not hunters and gatherers.  They were agrarians who lived in settled communities. Only agricultural societies could support the numbers of people that the archeaological sites indicate.

Once that claim is accepted, the next consequence is that the “untouched wilderness” that the Europeans thought they were encountering was of very recent vintage.  The land returned to a seemingly wilderness state only as a result of the rapid depopulation.  It did not look like that before 1500.  There is almost no “old growth” forest in either North or South America if by that term we mean forests where trees have never been felled by humans.

Finally, and most significantly by my lights, Mann argues that there is an ecological lesson to be learned here.  There is no hope for–and perhaps not much rational reason to desire–purely natural environments.  We should recognize that pre-Columbians actively managed their environments.  And we should realize that humans always have the task of tending to their environments.  It is not a choice between “letting nature be” or interfering.  We are always interfering.  The choice is between better and worse ways of making our inevitable impact on non-human species and on non-human nature.  Passivity is a non-starter–and a delusion.

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