What kind of world was the Americas, before European colonists arrived? Advances in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ecology, geography and history have combined to challenge many of the long-held theories about what pre-Columbian America was like, who inhabited it, and their origins. Science writer Charles C. Mann has followed these developments with interest and the sharp eye of a journalist, after an unplanned trip to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá in 1983 left him enthralled with Mesoamerican culture. Mann has been described as “a brilliant synthesizer and populizer of scholarly ideas”, and in his latest book Ancient Americans: Rewriting the History of the New World he brings to light some of the main contemporary archaeological and historical issues surrounding the Americas pre-1492. Issues that are not only pertinent to academic study, but also have significant implications for 21st century Americans and Europeans, and for how we view our modern relationship with the natural world.
Charles C. Mann kindly agreed to the following interview (conducted by email).
The title of your book, in Europe at least, is Ancient Americans, which is as good a place to start as any. You highlight arguments that suggest that not only have we been mistaken about the size of pre-Columbian society, but also its age. How far back can we reliably date a city-dwelling society in the Americas?
The earliest known urban complex in the Americas was a cluster of more than 20 small cities in coastal Peru, an hour or so north of Lima. Using carbon-dating, a Peruvian-American team determined in 2001 that the cities dated back to 3000 B.C. — some a bit earlier, some more recent. This is old not just for the Americas but for the entire world. The pyramids in Egypt had not got started then, for instance.
A long section of the book is taken up with the debate over the size of the pre-Columbian population in the Americas. What do you think is the most credible estimate, and why does it matter so much?
Until the 1960s most researchers thought that when Columbus landed the entire hemisphere held only a few million people. Now most (though not all) believe the actual count was much, much higher. The highest scholarly estimate I’ve seen is 140 million, though only a small percentage of researchers think the number could be that high. A more widely accepted figure now is 40-60 million. Note, though, that the ‘widely accepted’ number keeps rising as new information comes in. I wouldn’t be surprised if the consensus figure ended up being 80 million.
The debate is important for many reasons, but I’ll mention just two. One is that the population numbers give a sense of the scale of Indian civilizations. Small societies have a tough time coming up with the surplus and labor needed construct the public architecture, road networks, transportation systems, and so on that define materially sophisticated cultures. You need to have a certain number of people to build Chartres or the Temple of Heaven.
A second reason is that one justification used by Europeans to take over the Americas was the legal doctrine of res nullius, the concept that anyone can take unused, unoccupied land. If the native population of the United States in 1491 was 900,000, as scholars until recently believed, it seemed pretty clear that Britons and Spaniards and Frenchmen could snap up some land without doing anyone wrong. If, by contrast, the country was home to millions of people, this justification no longer becomes tenable.
The latest edition (fourth) of The Times Compact History of the World (2005) introduces the Americas with the following: &ldquoThe Americas were colonized from Asia late in the last Ice Age, when lowered sea levels turned the Bering Strait into dry land. The subsequent melting of the ice cut off the continent from Eurasia”. Why do you think it is that the Bering Strait theory has dominated and overshadowed competing theories regarding the origins of America’s original colonizers? Are we any closer to a new consensus on the issue of from where and how America was colonized initially?
The Bering Strait theory is tidy and readily understood, which makes it intellectually appealing. In addition, the most widely accepted evidence for the first human presence in the hemisphere was right after the Strait sank beneath the waves, and the timing was hard to ignore. In the last two decades, though, a host of linguistic, genetic, geological, and archaeological data has challenged the Bering Strait theory — fatally, in the view of most researchers.
First, a Chilean-American team of researchers unearthed compelling evidence for human inhabitation in the extreme south, near Tierra del Fuego, at about the time the Straits were closing. Because most researchers believe that it would have taken thousands of years for the paleo-Indians, as they were called, to colonize the hemisphere, this suggests that they were here longer than previously believed. A second piece of evidence is the failure to discover evidence for the &ldquoice-free passage”. This related to the problem that anyone who walked over the Bering Strait would have run into the two massive, 2000-mile-long sheets of ice that then covered North America — it was the Ice Age, one recalls. It had been speculated that the melting of the ice would open up a gap between the two ice sheets, parting them like the Red Sea before Moses. Paleo-Indians would have walked through the gap into the rest of the Americas. This seems not to have occurred. And a third piece of evidence, from genetics, suggests that Indians separated genetically from their kindred in Siberia twenty or even thirty thousand years ago.
All of these things, while not conclusive, point toward a much earlier origin. Because nobody can figure out how else they could have crossed the ice, more and more researchers are beginning to think they must have come by boat. There’s no evidence for this. But in some sense it should be the default hypothesis — after all, Asians came to Australia by boat tens of thousands of years ago.
When faced with the accomplishments of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, a commonplace response has been to say &ldquothat’s all very well, but they didn’t even have the wheel”. Without asking you to evaluate competitively the different cultures, can you roughly compare and contrast the level of technical innovation between the Americas and Europe at the time of Conquest?
Europeans indeed had some advantages over indigenous societies — the horse, infectious diseases like smallpox — but these were generally not technological advantages. Rather, each society had its own areas of specialized development. Many agricultural researchers believe that the agricultural crops and methods in the Americas were superior to those in Europe, for example. Meanwhile, the Europeans had superior means of harnessing water power — pumps and mills. Which is more important? It’s hard to say.
An example I spend some time with in my book is metallurgy. Europeans had steel and Indians did not, which has led some researchers to argue that Indian metallurgy essentially didn’t exist. After all, they didn’t have the steel axe. But this is not the case. The Inca, for example, valued metal not for its hardness and sharpness but for its color and ductility. Thus they learned to create complex gold and silver alloys and developed techniques for joining and molding extremely thin sheets that were beyond anything in Europe at the time. As it turned out, having steel weapons would have been useful in the confrontation with Europe, but their absence was not due to a lack of sophisticated metallurgy. There are many more examples.
American poet Robert Frost wrote in The Gift Outright that &ldquothe land was ours before we were the land’s” — a land that was &ldquostill unstoried, artless, unenhanced / Such as she was, such as she would become”. This idea, that the land of America was &ldquounenhanced” before its European colonization, has become an integral part of the modern American identity. To what extent do the new theories/arguments outlined in Ancient Americans call into question the image of colonial Americans as innovators &ldquoenhancing” nature (and in a sense meriting the land as a result)?
If anything, Europeans ‘de-enhanced’ the land (if there is such a word), at least initially. Before colonization, Indians had managed most of the landscapes of the Americas for millennia. If you had somehow been able to fly over New England, for example, you would have seen the coastline and major river valleys dotted with villages and towns and lined, several miles deep, with maize fields. Beyond the fields was the forest — not the untended wilderness imagined by Thoreau, but a carefully controlled place which annual burnings kept open and parklike (this was to increase the supply of game). So open was the forest that the first visitors reported being able to ride carriages through the trees, with no need to cut roads.
When Europeans came, they inadvertently imported European diseases to which natives had no immunity. The result was a massive wave of death that killed as much as 90 percent of the initial population. Because the population shrank, it became difficult for native societies to manage their landscapes as they had done before and it reverted to a wild state. Europeans did not alter the wilderness so much as tragically create it. Later, of course, they set to modifying their creation — ‘enhancing’ it, if you will.
This ties in with the above question, in the sense that it deals with a poetic notion that dominates much of American literature – wilderness. Do we need to go back and re-read people like Henry David Thoreau in a new light, based on the theories you’ve presented — that much of what was taken for wilderness by modern Americans was in fact the product of a deliberate human interaction with nature?
I believe so. Wilderness is a lovely idea but one that has the unfortunate side-effect of rendering invisible the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere. It is also problematic for conservation. If the goal of many American conservation efforts is to bring back the land to what it was before Columbus, then it needs not to be left alone but to be actively managed.
To a certain extent discussion of the encounter between European colonizers and the Native Americans (for want of a better term) has been dominated by an examination of the effect of the colonizers on the colonized. In a fascinating coda to the book, you speculate about some of the effects Native Americans had on the shaping of modern American culture and representative democracy. You have been taken to task, though, in reviews of the book for this speculation, for example by Prof. Alan Taylor in the Washington Post. Is it naïve, as Taylor suggests, to draw a link between Native American society and, for example, the framing of the American constitution?
I don’t want to argue specifically with Prof. Taylor, who is a marvelous historian and who was really very kind to my book. But I will say that some of the historians who have objected to this bit in my book seem to me to be reacting to something I didn’t say, rather than to my actual argument. The reason is that 10-15 years ago some historians wrote that the U.S. constitution was modeled on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) constitution. The Haudenosaunee were a group of five (later six) societies that banded together in upstate New York to create was the major polity in the Northeast at the time of colonization. Other historians were so annoyed by the debate around these claims, which took on overtones of political correctness, etc., etc., that they ended up denouncing me for arguing the same thing.
I didn’t. Taken literally, as I wrote, the claim that the U.S. constitution was copied from the Indians seems implausible — the legislative system in the Haudenosaunee constitution, though enlightened by contemporary standards, simply wasn’t very much like that in the U.S. constitution.
Instead I argued a different thing: that native cultures and European cultures influenced each other. By this I mean the same kind of cultural borrowing we see today, in which Asian kids from Queens (in New York City) wear hip-hop clothing, and African-American kids from Harlem practice kung-fu moves and wear Bruce Lee T-shirts. For the first two centuries of U.S. history, Indian and European societies lived around each other in a way that is difficult to understand now. There are lots of historical studies of how Indians borrowed from Europeans, but very few that look the other way. It seems to me implausible, on the face of it, that the traffic went only one way.
My speculation (backed by some evidence) is that the celebrated American ‘democratic spirit’ — the open, classless, egalitarian brashness observed by countless foreign visitors — had part of its origins in the relatively open, classless, egalitarian Indian societies of the Northeast, which were strongly based on conceptions of the sovereign individual. This may well be wrong, but to date I have seen no refutation of it.
Remembering stories and films from my childhood that touched upon the conquest of America, the image presented generally was that of bloodthirsty, rapacious and greedy Spaniards encountering an innocent, superstitious culture quickly defeated by a combination of guile, steel, and horsepower. We know, of course, though, that Europeans brought disease with them, though in those same stories it was, at best, a bit part in the narrative. How decisive, though, was the introduction of new diseases like smallpox in leading to a European victory?
Completely decisive. Take a single example: the conquest of the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire) by Cortes. Every schoolchild learns that Cortes marched into Mexico at the head of a small army; seized Motecuhzoma (paramount leader of the empire), who thought the Europeans were gods; and then conquered the rest of the empire by dint of superior technology. Almost all of this is demonstrably wrong. To begin with, Cortes catalyzed a revolt against the oppressive Triple Alliance, which led to him marching at the head of an enormous army — eighty to a hundred thousand people, according to some historians. (Properly speaking, the whole conquest was really a matter of Cortes cleverly hijacking a war among powerful Indian states.) Cortes did seize Motecuhzoma, but there is no contemporary evidence that the Indian leader believed the Spaniards were gods — that story first emerges more than a century later. And, most important, when the Triple Alliance counterattacked, during the so-called noche triste, it utterly vanquished Cortes. He lost two-thirds of his men and all of his horses and was driven out of the city.
That would have been that for Cortes, except that he was incredibly lucky. At about the same time, a second Spanish expedition landed on the Mexican mainland. This expedition was sent to take Cortes back — he was acting illegally. Cortes had attacked it and seized its men. One of them, possibly a slave, was sick with smallpox, and he infected the hemisphere. Something like one out of every three people in the Triple Alliance died during the next few months. Because the Spaniards were all immune to smallpox and didn’t die, their Indian allies — and the Spaniards themselves — believed they were favored by God. And this allowed Cortes to reform his alliance and attack the weakened city.
I don’t mean here to denigrate Cortes’s bravery, leadership, or cruelty. But he never would have conquered Mexico without smallpox. The same epidemic apparently swept as far south as the Inca empire, where it killed the emperor and his designated successor and provoked a calamitous civil war. This was the situation that allowed Pizarro to conquer the empire, again by playing off disease-weakened factions against each other. And similar stories happened time and time again during the colonization of the Americas. Jared Diamond, as your readers may recall, wrote a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel. A history of the conquest should be called Germs, Germs, and Germs.
Ancient Americans: Rewriting the History of the New World by Charles C. Mann is published by Granta.
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