July 30, 2006

Book recommendation

Both Charlene and I highly recommend the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which is about the populations and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived. It pulls together a large amount of research that has been done in recent decades. In short, everything you thought you knew (or at least, that we thought we knew) about the indians is wrong.

There were many more indians (the author, by the way, makes it quite clear that "indians" is the preferred term, not PC constructions like "Native American") than historians had realized, the hemisphere was much more "civilized" and more modified by human action than anyone had guessed.

And the diseases that explorers brought were much more lethal than historians had thought. (Why more lethal? Probably mostly because the indian populations were much less genetically diverse, having grown from rather small populations that migrated from Asia. Also because they did not live in proximity to domestic animals, which have been a source of many of our disease organisms.) Epidemics spread in waves ahead of Europeans, and only the very earliest explorers saw intact populations. And their reports were often dismissed as lies by those who came a few years later, and found a very different situation.

For instance, the vile Hernando de Soto wandered through our Southeastern states and reported them thickly populated with towns, often three others being visible from any one. A century later, de la Salle passed through some of the same places without seeing a village for hundreds of miles! And the earliest Europeans did not find millions of Buffalo. That was a population explosion that resulted from the collapse of human populations.

I found the section on the Amazon Basin the most staggering. It too was thickly populated...

...[p. 284] Carvajal wrote little about the peoples who spent so much time trying to kill him. But the small amount he did write depicts a crowded and prosperous land. Approaching what is now the Peru-Brazil border, he noted that, "the farther we went, the more thickly populated and the better did we find the land." One 180-mile stretch was "all inhabited, for there was not from village to village a crossbow shot."

How did the people live? By planting trees. The Amazonian forest today is amazingly thick with fruit and nut-bearing trees, and many researchers now believe that these are in fact the remnants of old "orchards." Also, they found the means to enrich the soil--jungle soil is notoriously poor, but perhaps as much as 10% of the Amazon Basin has rich black soil that can grow crops for decades without fertilizers. People dig it up and sell it as potting soil. How did they do it? Hey, read the book! You will be so astonished.

Posted by John Weidner at July 30, 2006 7:57 AM
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