New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

2005, Charles C. Mann

see also 1493

I was late to this book. I had seen Gavin Menzie's 2003 "1421" and 2008 "1434" in bookstores, and brief browsing suggested they were woowoo baloney (I could be wrong, I was reacting to the tone). Sadly, I mixed them up with Mann's more sober (though still controversial) book.

One of the difficult facts to explain about climate is "the little ice age", peaking around 1700, when the world was colder than the peak around 1000 AD. It is fashionable to blame CO₂ levels on industry, which certainly plays the dominant role after world war 2, but why have ice-core-derived CO₂ levels risen for the past ten millenia, doubling before 1940? Anthropogenic land use change - the destruction of climax forest and perennial tall grasslands - also plays a big role. Nature stores carbon in trees and the deep roots of perennial grass; replacing these species with crops or rangeland for domesticated ruminants releases a lot of carbon into the air.

The book does not note this, but it does make a plausible argument for the widespread use of fire by American Indians to remove the native vegetation, followed by hunting (for bison) and then farming (mostly maize). It may be possible to construct a timeline for pyroculture peaking around 1000 AD, denuding the landscape of most vegetation besides short sweet grasses, followed by denser maize agriculture, perhaps a little more carbon-friendly. In the vast Amazon basin, the author points at arborculture as a way of supporting large populations where there is nutrient-poor soils, but plenty of rain and sunlight and litter. In the author's view, slash-and-burn Yanamamo agriculture is not the ancient usage for Amazonia, but the last gasp of the few remaining refugees from disease and European slavery, unable to maintain the orchards and productive forests of their much more numerous ancestors.

Mann makes no secret of his deviation from the Official Archeological Story. Official stories are often better founded than the work of the mavericks. Still, it makes sense that the large cultures based on wood and fiber, in a region where trees and plants grow rapidly in the rotting debris of past wood and fiber, could disappear, leaving few archeological traces. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The story of the people of the Americas is written mostly in their genes; population sizes and mutation rates are written the genes, and may be recoverable if you sequence everybody. The original Indian genes are a palimpsest on which cross-border flows and European genes are written, so every generation that goes by destroys this last remaining document of times past.

Mann tells "both sides" of the story, but his sympathies seem to be with the "high counters", the archeologists who claim a long and highly populous history for American Indians.

In any case, there is something deeply explanatory (if not always pleasing) about resourceful, expansive, exploring human beings doing what all species do, which is fill the available space until it won't hold more. The fly in the ointment is genetic diversity - only a few hundred people crossed the Bering Strait (once or multiple times), and they did not carry a full complement of Eurasia/Africa's genes with them.

Only a few different varieties of Human Leukocyte Antigen genes were spread throughout the Americas, a small fraction of the immunity genes in the old world, and the inverse square of the largest probabilities drives the exponential rate at which viral diseases spread. Native Americans were way more sensitive to epidemic diseases, such as the smallpox brought by Europeans, and diseases passed from new-world forest mammals (my own extrapolation). Far more Europeans and Africans have died of epidemic disease over history, but for most American Indians, the deaths were concentrated within two centuries, wiping out whole populations simultaneously, without time to recover and rebuild.

I am probably not politically correct, and do not focus on assigning blame and guilt to the descendants of Europeans. I would rather help strengthen and develop the remaining American Indian people, before mythologizing and Marxism overwrites what little of their cultural memory survived replacement-at-gunpoint by conquistadors, pilgrims, settlers, and missionaries. Not because "their" dogmas were superior to "ours", but because the new dogmas we can synthesize from the combination of both will be richer and more humane than the isolated dogmas taken alone. Mann's own dogma may differ from those of the journaled academics, but history is richer if there is more than one.

Mann ends his book with The Great Law of Peace, the libertarian constitution of the Five Tribes constituting the Haudenosaunee Alliance, and one of the oldest constitutional representative democracies on Earth. Mann argues that this "bicameral system" - female elders selecting the village sachems, the sachems electing the speaker of the Alliance assembly, with a parallel system of males choosing war leaders - was the real inspiration for the European philosophers who in turn inspired the US Constitution. History is a complex flow of many threads, perhaps as many threads as the 100 billion humans that populate that history.

Writing the concerns of the present onto the past blinds us to what past great minds can tell us. This is perhaps the greatest sin of the resentful Marxists who nearly destroyed the Russian and Chinese people, until they were beaten back to their last strongholds in universities. Mann does not abandon academic rigor, but he does not surrender to the agendas of academia. Nobody knows for sure the exact details of history, but we know that real humans had real lives in a real physical universe, and the details that we can recover from the soil and stones and genes will provide valuable clues to living lives of our own.

1491 (last edited 2015-03-21 16:32:27 by KeithLofstrom)