1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

‘s essay 1491 in the March 2002 Atlantic was one of the most fascinating magazine articles I’ve read. It posited a human an natural world in the Americas prior to 1492 very unlike the one taught in history classes–large, organized human populations that thoroughly shaped their environments–and it seemed the scant evidence pointed to this world.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus expands on the essay and is a good read, apart from a few personal anecdotes and one painfully silly page on Inca economics. Some of the major points:

  • Humans probably 30,000 years ago, not 12,000 years ago.
  • The first complex culture in the Americas, in present-day Peru, was contemporary with ancient civilizations in the old world (beginning 3000BC).
  • Pre-1492 ecologies, including the Amazon rainforest, were engineered by humans, mostly through fire, irrigation, and planting of fruit and nut bearing trees.
  • Pre-1492 human populations were large and well organized, and not just in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Amazonia and fertile parts of the present day U.S. were heavily populated and organized. The earliest accounts by Europeans agree with this.
  • Perhaps 80 percent of the new world population died of old world diseases in the century after 1492, almost entirely without direct contact with old world humans. may have declined by 20 percent in the first 200 years.
  • New world populations were vulnerable to old world diseases and not vice versa because there weren’t many new world species suitable for domesticaion (and thus the passing of disease between humans and animals) and very little diversity in genes impacting the immune system.
  • The Spanish conquest of the and empires would have been impossible had both not been ravaged by immediately before conquest.
  • The survived with food taken from villages emptied by disease shortly before.
  • The overgrown forests, massive bison herds and pigeon flocks and similar encountered by later arriving old world descendants did not exist prior to the die off of native human populations and resulting disintegration of their socities. in particular seem to have been rare pre-contact (their bones are rare in refuse that contains bones of many types of birds eaten). The flocks of billions were an outbreak population enabled by human death or other ecological disruption resulting from contact.
  • farming did not exist pre-contact–it only becomes practical with steel axes. Clearing with stone axes would take many months, for land that can only be cultivated a few years. With steel axes, clearing can be accomplished in a week. Farmers in Amazonia instead created that could be farmed continuously through a “slash-and-char” process.
  • Present day primitive state of peoples such as the may not be ancient at all. The tree-based agriculture of Amazonia would have enabled them to abandon their farms for a short time at no permanent loss–and they would have had plenty of reason to flee from disease and Spanish slaving–but after a generation or so, especially with high mortality, their agricultural knowledge would have been lost.

Apart from Norte Chico, which appears to have only been recognized in the last decade, none of these revelations are truly new. They have been hotly debated by archeologists for many decades, with the consensus slowly coming around to support the scenario above, at least that’s what I get from reading Mann’s description of the debates.

I have changed my mind about one thing, mostly as a result of reading this book and some further reading on the topic. I used to think the Aztecs and Incas basically “had it coming” as they were super-seriously, super-outrageously, and super-bizarrely deranged by bloodthirsty religions (as opposed to the merely serious, outrangeous, and bizarre derangement of the bloodthirsty subjects of the ) that left them unable to cope with anomalous events. The pre-conquest civiliations may not have been more bloody than their contemporaries in Europe in terms of numbers killed. The appearance of pale skinned men on horses with guns is no anomaly compared to smallpox. I suspect old world civilization would have convulsed had disease worked the other way–the impact was greater than that of the .

An interesting and demystifying paper on the Aztec legal system.

I am both amazed that essentially a whole separate set of cultures and line of history existed and saddened that it is almost completely lost.

That famous passage from Adam Smith’s (1759):

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Smith’s hypothetical was merely off by an ocean.

4 Responses

  1. […] There is a tiny hint that hemorrhagic fever could have played a role in the depopulation of the Americas post-1491 but before substantial European contact (my extrapolation and emphasis): The evidence from the Douglas firs shows that during the 16th century central Mexico not only lacked rain but also suffered the most severe and sustained drought in 500 years, one that encompassed nearly the entire continent. […]

  2. […] In elementary school I won a Columbus Day essay contest sponsored by the Roman Cultural Society of Springfield, Illinois for making the audacious claim (so I was told) that Columbus did not discover America. I have ignored Columbus since then, except as a disease vector. I doubt I would have managed to win that contest had I known of another aspect of Columbus, which I only learned about today: By the time Christopher Columbus appeared in Lisbon in 1477 an Old World slave trade was thriving in the eastern Atlantic between West Africa, the Atlantic islands, and Europe. In his famous letter on his first voyage he informed Ferdinand and Isabella he could, with their help, give them “slaves, as many as they shall order.” On his second voyage Columbus loaded five hundred Indian slaves aboard returning caravels. On the last leg of his voyage to Cadiz, “about two hundred of these Indians died,” a passenger recorded, appending, “We cast them into the sea.” In this manner the discoverer of the New World launched the transatlantic slave trade, at first in Indians and from west to east. […]

  3. […] So who was stupid enough to build the boat? Schoeck cites p. 87 of Eldon Best’s 1924 book The Maori, which is online, but doesn’t seem to say much more about muru than what Schoeck repeats above. A modern interpretation of muru seems to be here. A student paper on the Maori legal system largely citing this link is here, from the same Legal Systems Very Different From Ours class that produced an informative paper on the Aztec legal system I mentioned previously. I highly recommend checking out the site for that class or similar before assuming another culture’s institutions are so bizarre they could not serve a productive purpose. […]

  4. […] civlilization-destroying blow to the New World dealt by Old World diseases (and resulting relatively unopposed European […]

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