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WELL WRITTEN SUMMARY OF RECENT SCHOLARSHIP ON OCCUPATION OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS
on September 3, 2006
There has been much scholarly discussion over the years about pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. How many were there? What technologies did they develop? Did they have writing? What destroyed them? Where is the evidence?
In this book, Charles Mann brought together much of the recent scholarly knowledge, piecing together evidence from across North, Central and South America, to come up with a cohesive image of what the Americas looked like in terms of human occupation before Columbus.
The book's main arguemnt is that the Americas were already heavily populated with as many as 20 million people when Columbus arrived. These people possessed technology very advanced that was not, as much of history tells, puny and weak compared to what Europeans had developed. Agricultural methods were advanced and very productive, providing the basis for the establishment of large sedentary populations, much larger than previously thought. These large populations were mainly destroyed by disease. What we see today are in fact the remaining population after the equivalent of a holocaust, which is hardly a good basis to judge their capabilities and one time glory.
To demonstrate this theory, evidence is gathered from archeology and ancient reports from travellers. From most 16th century explorers, we get a picture of a heavily populated landscape, both in the southeastern US and in the Amazon. However, explorers through the same regions roughtly a century later describe a landscape of peaceful nature without large human interventions. The archeological evidence, as more is discovered, points in the direction of large populations and many characteristics (such as religion and art) of sedentary populations.
Particularly interesting is the section on the Amazon forest, in which the author describes the Amazon not as virginal forest but rather an a human construct, a large garden manipulated by ancient inhabitants, now abandoned. Evidence of these people's technology can be found in unlikely places, such as in the formation of terra preta, a highly fertile soil in a land well known for poor soils for agriculture. Additionally, the raised fields of the Bolivian Amazon also point to a highly sophisticated and organized society that would need to be surplus producing in order to spare the manpower for such great public works.
An interesting addendum to his argument is about the freedom enjoyed by antive americans, which is much more similar to the freedom we enjoy today and seek to expand, than the Europeans at the time enjoyed. The author does a superb job of piecing together evidence from across the continent to come to interesting conclusions about our ancestors.
I highly recommend this book not only to anyone interested in the history of the Americas before Columbus, but to anyone looking for an interesting read about our history as humans.