1491
October 12, 2015 4:23 PM   Subscribe

On this Columbus Day, consider what the world truly looked like before the arrival of the West.

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.
posted by glaucon (33 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Most people don't realize the impact early American cultures like Clovis had on the landscape and fauna of the Americas, long before European settlement.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:30 PM on October 12, 2015


psst the second Monday in October is Indigenous People's Day, not Columbus Day.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:45 PM on October 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


Heeeey 1491 is an awesome book and y'all should read it. It'll change the way you think about lots of stuff. It did for me, at least.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:51 PM on October 12, 2015 [22 favorites]


And not a single previously? not even this one?
posted by zachxman at 4:54 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I started reading the book version (by Mann) this weekend. It has its flaws, but it's a good read, and very enlightening for those folks who only view the pre-columbian western hemisphere through the lens of what is taught in school.
I've traveled through both the Inka lands and the Mayan lands and it boggles that those societies were not viewed as sophisticated and enormous, but the fact that disease had devastated those populations so incredibly (as well as those farther north) just as the europeans began to take interest in the continent must have emboldened the conquerors enormously, making the natives seem like pushovers to technology and numbers that might not have been enough had things gone differently.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:59 PM on October 12, 2015


Well and in the case of the Inca, it's even more interesting than that -- a king dies, then a sibling rivalry in which the losing side was looking for a partner. Fortuitous for the Spaniards to say the least. A healthy and unified nation would have destroyed the conquistadors.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:02 PM on October 12, 2015


Most people don't realize the impact early American cultures like Clovis had on the landscape and fauna of the Americas, long before European settlement.

It is certainly true early cultures had an effect on the landscape and fauna, but the specific role of Clovis has been vastly over-stated over the last 50 years or so. It now seems much more likely "Clovis people" themselves were caught up in a series of environmental changes which caused a long term process of post-glacial extinctions. As it stands, there is very poor evidence that Clovis people alone had much effect on the now-extinct megafauna of the Americas, despite this being a popular and well-entrenched model of overkill. See for example, the work of paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill, who is also a great follow on twitter as a feminist climate scientist not inclined to take any shit.
posted by Rumple at 5:04 PM on October 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Where I live in Indiana, most of what used to be hardwood forest has been converted to corn and soybean fields. Every now and then, though, I find myself in a nice, deep woods, and I look around and remind myself that most of this state once was covered by forests like this. And then people showed up and stuff happened.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:14 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Every now and then, though, I find myself in a nice, deep woods, and I look around and remind myself that most of this state once was covered by forests like this.

I would recommend reading the article or book!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:23 PM on October 12, 2015 [18 favorites]


Oh and here's a great podcast that covers similar ground, as well.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:25 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


[A few comments deleted; I know it's all based on good intentions, but let's skip the sidebar about what the preferred terminology is for people of native ancestry today; short version, there are varying answers for different populations, and it ends up taking us away from discussing the history that the article's about.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:40 PM on October 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


It will take me a couple passes to grasp everything in the article - there's a lot of good information to take in.

But there are also a lot of errors that keep jumping out at me. Statements such as they (the Spaniards) had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe (absolutely not true) and Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men (it was, in fact, a long, brutal, thirty year war between the Spaniards and Incas, and took far more than 168 Spaniards) are frustrating. The article is a mix of solid research and pop-culture misconceptions, which is ironic for an article that sets out to correct popular misconceptions.
posted by kanewai at 5:47 PM on October 12, 2015 [11 favorites]


Found the terraforming discussion really interesting. Question: is there an oral tradition among native/Indian North Americans pertaining to a sudden die-off of millions and millions of people? Or of permanent settlements with tens of thousands of inhabitants? There wasn't much mention of Natives view of their own history.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 5:49 PM on October 12, 2015


Question: is there an oral tradition among native/Indian North Americans pertaining to a sudden die-off of millions and millions of people? Or of permanent settlements with tens of thousands of inhabitants? There wasn't much mention of Natives view of their own history.
one of the previouslies linked to this article from the Smithsonian, which depicted the First Thanksgiving from the point-of-view of Massassoit, the sachem of the Wompanoag Confederation and it's fascinating.
posted by bl1nk at 5:52 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


[A few comments deleted - sorry, I know it's an issue people have strong feelings on, but let's not derail onto the subject of what this holiday should be called, that's not really what the post is about.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:10 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


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.
If Sid Meiers had designed an accurate version of Colonization it would have been a lot bleaker.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:11 PM on October 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


You know, I remember reading a rather longform article in Time or Newsweek or something back in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing that made most of the points in this article (Which is itself 13 years old). The fact that this isn't common knowledge seems more an indictment on the teaching of history in US schools than anything else.
posted by KGMoney at 6:30 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


in my elementary school the Little House books were still standard, including the lines about "the only good indian is a dead indian"

there is no teaching of "history" in US schools. there's just wave upon wave of white supremacy.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:35 PM on October 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


The stuff on how the Amazon may be an entirely human created landscape and the discussion of terras pretas sounds a little hagiographic: Look at how the Noble Native Eco-Saints were able to terraform the Amazon. Can anyone recommend sources with a more measured discussion of terras pretas and the Amazon?
posted by monotreme at 6:35 PM on October 12, 2015




Whoa, what a fascinating article! When I realized this was from 2002 I had to see if there had actually been any research into terra preta. Looks like it's for real.
posted by drinkyclown at 6:56 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


The stuff on how the Amazon may be an entirely human created landscape and the discussion of terras pretas sounds a little hagiographic: Look at how the Noble Native Eco-Saints were able to terraform the Amazon. Can anyone recommend sources with a more measured discussion of terras pretas and the Amazon?

As this article illustrates

Sparse Pre-Columbian Human Habitation in Western Amazonia

the author is, as apparently required when reporting on any kind of science, overstating what the archaeologists actually claim in their published work. No, the Amazon Basin is not "largely a human artifact", but rather in parts of the Amazon Basin indigenous peoples did curate and alter it in ways which were beneficial for their cultures.

I don't know about measured, but here's a selection of peer reviewed stuff, unfortunately some of it is paywalled to hell and back.

Earthmovers of the Amazon

The Transformation of Environment into Landscape: The Historical Ecology of Monumental Earthwork Construction in the Bolivian Amazon

An artificial landscape-scale fishery in the Bolivian Amazon

Rewriting the Late Pre-European History of Amazonia

The "Pristine Myth" Revisited

Contingent Diversity on Anthropic Landscapes

The Research Program of Historical Ecology

Archaeology of the Upper Delta of the Paraná River (Argentina): Mound Construction and Anthropic Landscapes in the Los Tres Cerros locality

Dark earths and the human built landscape in Amazonia: A widespread pattern of anthrosol formation (PDF WARNING)

How pristine are tropical forests? An ecological perspective on the pre-Columbian human footprint in Amazonia and implications for contemporary conservation(PDF WARNING)

Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in the Purus-Madeira Interfluve, Central Amazonia

Much more here and here
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:37 PM on October 12, 2015 [16 favorites]


the Indians had "died on heapes..."

In the book he notes that before Jamestown, the French and other Europeans hadn't even attempted to colonize the Atlantic coast because it was clearly so populous already. Smallpox, measles, flu, and hepatitis killed probably 90% of native N. and S. Americans in just a few decades.

When Pizzaro conquered the Inca, they were already suffering from an epidemic that had killed from 30-50% of the population, and differed two similar epidemics after.

The reports off the Americas of the early settlers were describing a place that was empty not because so few people lived there, but because so many had died before they arrived.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:43 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


The reports off the Americas of the early settlers were describing a place that was empty not because so few people lived there, but because so many had died before they arrived.

And Mann writes about the theory that the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons the Europeans found in N.A. were unnatural products of the radical decline of the native human population. Sounds controversial on its face (anyone up to date on current science?) but a fascinating and eye-opening proposition nonetheless. Highly recommend "1491," with the caveat that it's a journalist synthesizing current science to create a compelling narrative.
posted by stargell at 8:04 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


psst the second Monday in October is Indigenous People's Day, not Columbus Day

Alaska never celebrated Columbus day to begin with, but now it's officially Indigenous Day here.
posted by timelord at 9:05 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just finished 1491, now reading 1493, which includes a fascinating section about Columbus himself, and argues for his significance not as the discoverer of New World, but the maker (first among millions) of a new world by uniting the environments and then economies of the Americas with Eurasia and Africa.

The details in 1491 may be wrong - few macro histories don't make mistakes. But the overall points stand.

But if anyone wants to read some of the important pre- and post-Columbian environmental history for themselves, I can highly recommend William Cronon's Changes in the Land.
posted by jb at 10:53 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Neat. There's a 530 year old maple tree (Comfort Maple) on the Niagara penninsula that has very wide spreading branches. The provincial web site says it was likeley growing in a cleared area when it was young.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:12 AM on October 13, 2015


This was fascinating to me, I'll admit that I am fairly ignorant on this topic. I'm looking forward to digging into some of the links posted above, thanks for sharing.
posted by pallas14 at 4:18 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I knew some of this, but most of this was new. I didn't realize that any part of the Amazon was cultivated or that the Bison population grew after the plagues swept the inhabitants of the Americas. Personally, I like to think of Columbus day as "Let's give syphilis to the Europeans day," but that's a debate that shouldn't happen here.

I do find it interesting that while there are a great number of contemporary reports of large native settlements, there has been no location of large grave sites. I wonder if this is due to large numbers of people not actually being buried when they died, as there was no one to bury or otherwise dispose of the bodies. What happens to human corpses when a large numbers are not buried? I'd guess at food for scavengers and the bones being destroyed in the scavenging, but I could be wrong.
posted by Hactar at 7:47 AM on October 13, 2015


If Sid Meiers had designed an accurate version of Colonization it would have been a lot bleaker.

I'm now thinking about the game built on what the continents were like before the arrival of Europeans. It would be a powerful communicator.
posted by emmet at 9:24 AM on October 13, 2015


Hacter: I don't know the details of the arguments, but I do know that the deaths took place over a few decades, that the highest populations would have been in Mexico, Central and South America - and you can have places where human remains do not last at all. I knew an archeologist who worked in the Yucatan, and said that they had no human remains from even a few hundred years ago, as the bones the soil rotted to nothing very quickly. They had, at most, stains in the ground where graves had been.

We do know that global CO2 levels dropped around 1600 - one hypothesis is that the loss of fields and increase of forests in the Americas sucked co2 out of the atmosphere - an eerie echo of lost millions.
posted by jb at 11:01 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


1491 seems a bit fanciful at times. Also I am not sure that we can say for certain the population level in 1491.
posted by tarvuz at 1:55 PM on October 13, 2015


No for certain, no. But there are people studying what data there is and the current concensus is that it was between 50-100 million (both N and S America).

You can find a discussion of the 50M figure here: http://www.bxscience.edu/ourpages/auto/2009/4/5/34767803/Pre-Columbian%20population.pdf
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:32 PM on October 13, 2015


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