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What Columbus didn’t find

Jim Rossi is a San Francisco-based writer, covering science and the outdoors.

THINK back to high school history class: Remember the part about buffalo in the New World? It probably went something like this: When Europeans began settling the interior of North America in the 17th century, they encountered pristine forests and a vast prairie crowded with millions of the giant horned mammals along with countless other animals and birds. Over the next three centuries, desperate colonists, industrious frontiersmen and heedless sportsmen upset the natural balance, hunting the bison to the brink of extinction.

But like much of what we learned in school, that’s not the whole story, Charles C. Mann tells us in his book “1491.” “The Americas seen by the first colonists were teeming with game ... [but] the continents had not been that way for long,” Mann writes.

Many archeologists and anthropologists now believe, Mann says, that more people inhabited the Americas than lived in Europe at the time Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492. The largest Aztec city -- Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day Mexico City -- was more populous than Paris; unlike European cities, it had running water and clean streets.

At least 4,000 years ago, Mesoamerican farmers developed maize -- the progenitor of today’s corn -- from wild plants into a staple crop grown throughout the Americas in a feat of genetic engineering that still isn’t completely understood. “Somebody who did that today would win a Nobel Prize,” Pennsylvania State University geneticist Nina V. Federoff tells Mann.

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Mann is a longtime correspondent for Science and the Atlantic Monthly and coauthor of four previous books -- most notably “Noah’s Choice,” about the need to reform the Endangered Species Act. This is his first solo gig and his best work, reminiscent of John McPhee’s eloquence with scientific detail and Jared Diamond’s paradigm-shifting ambition. Mann integrates carbon-14 dating, genomic analysis, ancient texts, archeological inferences from excavated rats’ nests and more into a concise and brilliantly entertaining thesis. I don’t agree with all his big conclusions, but “1491" makes me think of history in a new way.

In “1491,” germs eclipse both guns and steel as a historical force; in that, Mann owes a greater debt than he acknowledges to the findings of geographer Alfred Crosby in his 1972 classic, “The Columbian Exchange.” Pandemics of European diseases followed Francisco Pizarro’s march against the Incas and Hernando Cortes’ invasion of Aztec Mexico. Hepatitis, measles, cholera and smallpox preceded colonists into the interior of the New World, as native traders and messengers inadvertently transmitted a holocaust back to their homelands.

Genetically speaking, American Indians are believed to be descendants of relatively small groups that arrived from Asia, probably more than 20,000 years ago. They were less genetically diverse and suffered from fewer infectious diseases than Europeans. The conquistadors had immunities to Old World infectious diseases, but not to New World germs, such as syphilis; still, many more Europeans survived the encounter than did Indians.

These first explorers saw a continent in convulsive change. “Hernando De Soto’s expedition staggered through the Southeast for four years in the early sixteenth century and saw hordes of people” lining the Mississippi River, Mann writes. A century later, Sieur Robert Cavelier de La Salle canoed down the same stretch of river and found “solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man,” according to 19th century historian Francis Parkman. De Soto didn’t see buffalo, but La Salle found them everywhere, filling the ecological void left by the missing people. “That’s one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters,” UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton tells Mann. “Everything else -- all the heavily populated urbanized societies -- was wiped out.”

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Contrary to popular belief, Mann writes, most pre-Columbian societies weren’t made up of simple hunters and gatherers who had minimal effect on the land. Archeologists and anthropologists have found evidence that the Inca, Maya, Toltec and others operated on a continental scale with an ambition spanning many generations. Indians cleared forests with fire, irrigated and terraced vast farmland, and built cities and temples -- producing ingenious technology and culture as well as devastating wars and deforestation. “Indians as poster children for eco-catastrophe, Indians as green role models: The two images contradict each other less than they seem,” he writes.

Mann raises crucial questions at a time when mainstream environmentalism finds itself under political siege. Besides arguing that much of the Great Plains was a buffalo farm, “1491" contends that huge swaths of the Amazon rain forest are actually remnants of gardens, built atop great mounds of charcoal and pottery shards to grow fruit trees and other crops for a densely populated Amazonian civilization that pre-dated Christ. These Amazonians greatly outnumbered the nomads and slash-and-burn farmers who subsist across much of the region now. “Native Americans had been managing their environment for thousands of years ... [but] in the sixteenth century, epidemics removed the boss,” he writes. “Far from destroying pristine wilderness ... the Europeans bloodily created it.”

Mann exaggerates wildly here, I think. Even today, with more than 436 million people tooling around North America, vast landscapes -- mostly mountain ranges, dense forests and desert -- remain essentially wild. And in an ultimate sense, our entire global enterprise still operates at the pleasure of nature’s forces: spasms of geology and weather, cyclical droughts and floods, and prehistoric climate change.

But if Mann is at least partly right -- and I think he is -- it’s time for a paradigm shift in ecology. First, learn from history; then plan for the future instead of trying to recapture the past.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

What happened when

12,000-15,000 years ago: End of last Ice Age; Bering Strait land bridge connects Asia to the Americas; first confirmed evidence of humans in northern Europe and the Americas.

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2800-2500 BC: First pyramids built in Egypt.

1800 BC: First large temples built in the Americas.

400-300 BC: The golden age of Greece.

476 AD: Rome falls.

760-910 AD: Maya civilization collapses; coincides with severe long-term drought.

1000 AD: Vikings reach Newfoundland.

1492 AD: Columbus reaches land in the Caribbean.

1533 AD: Pizarro captures the Incan capital.

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Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic,

“1491" by Charles C. Mann.


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