'1491' Explores the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann

Author Charles C. Mann hide caption

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Our founding myth suggests the Americas were a lightly populated wilderness before Europeans arrived. Historian Charles C. Mann compiled evidence of a far more complex and populous pre-Columbian society. He tells John Ydstie about 1491.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

What were the Americas like in 1491, before Columbus landed? Our founding myths suggest the hemisphere was sparsely populated mostly by nomadic tribes living lightly on the land and that the land was, for the most part, a vast wilderness. That's what most of us learned in school, along with a few paragraphs about more highly developed cultures in Central and South America. Research of the past few decades suggests, though, that the Americas were home to more people than Europe when Columbus landed and that most lived in complex, highly organized societies. In his new book titled "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Charles C. Mann compiled evidence of the sophistication of pre-Columbian America. He joins us now from the studios of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHARLES C. MANN (Author, "1491"): Glad to be here.

YDSTIE: Let's just quickly paint a picture of what the new evidence suggests that America looked like in 1491, what the Indian cultures looked like. And let's start in a very familiar place for Americans, for North Americans, and that is in New England, in the area of the Plymouth Colony. What kind of Indian society was there at the time?

Mr. MANN: From southern Maine down to about the Carolinas, you would have seen pretty much the entire coastline lined with farms, cleared land, interior for many miles and densely populated villages generally rounded with wooden walls. And then in the Southeast, you would have seen these priestly chiefdoms, which were centered on these large mounds, thousands and thousands of them, which still exist. And then as you went further down, you would have come across what is often called the Aztec empire and maybe better known as the Triple Alliance 'cause it was a group of three people, which was a very aggressive, expansionistic empire that had one of the world's largest cities as its capital, Tenutchtitlan, which is now Mexico City.

YDSTIE: Bigger than either London or Paris.

Mr. MANN: Oh, yeah. It was a fantastic place. The Spaniards who first saw it just couldn't believe their eyes. It was in the middle of an immense lake called Lake Texcoco with this huge, artificially constructed set of islands there surrounded by boats. It was kind of like Venice.

YDSTIE: And if you went further down into South America you would run into--on the Pacific Coast, you would run into the Inca empire.

Mr. MANN: Yes, which was probably the largest state then on Earth. If it was in Europe, it would have stretched from Stockholm to Cairo and covered every imaginable ecosystem. And then if you went further into the Amazon, there were dozens and dozens of chiefdoms culminating in a fairly large state on this gigantic island at the mouth of the Amazon comargo(ph).

YDSTIE: And the new research over the past few decades also suggests that North America was as populated as Europe.

Mr. MANN: Yeah. Because the Indians were wiped out to an extraordinary degree by disease, these diseases went ahead of the settlers. And so European colonists would come in and they would find essentially recently deserted land. And so their whole impression was of a sparsely populated area. And it's only been in the last few decades, thanks to more advanced archaeological and scientific tools, we've been able to realize exactly how many people were there before the Europeans arrived.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. And, in fact, if we go back up to North America and to the New England area, for instance, in the first hundred years or so after Europeans began coming to America, they really couldn't establish colonies because the area was so populated.

Mr. MANN: And the Indians, rather naturally, didn't really want these people setting up permanent camps. And so you read the early chronicles and people will make short visits and trade, and the Indians will be very hospitable. And then after a certain amount of time, a large force of armed men will show up and inform the Europeans of the limited duration of Indian hospitality, and the Europeans would shove off. And this happened again and again and again.

YDSTIE: And what changed was disease.

Mr. MANN: Yes.

YDSTIE: And so when the Pilgrims showed up, they found a devastated area or at least an empty area.

Mr. MANN: It was an emptied area, if that makes any sense. `It was a widowed land,' as one historian has called it. In fact, the first 50 settlements in New England were on deserted Indian villages. And they were deserted because all the people in them had died. And, again, if you read the Colonial accounts, they're constantly finding skeletons scattered all over the place, and they landed in a cemetery.

YDSTIE: And, of course, the sort of myth before all of this was that the Indians succumbed to the Europeans because of superior European technology, superior European political organization, maybe even superior moral character. But this whole theory of disease suggests that none of those characteristics were quite as important. And, in fact, you suggest that technologically many of the Indian cultures were just as advanced, though not in the same areas, as the European cultures.

Mr. MANN: Yeah. Take the conquest of the Inca empire, which Pizarro did with just a couple of hundred people--168 I think is the exact number--and usually that's laid to the possession of the horse and steel weaponry. But, in fact, the Inca rapidly learned how to fight the horses. And as far as the steel goes, the armor was actually an impediment. The Spaniards threw it off because the Inca armor, which was made out of this densely woven cotton, was so far superior in those conditions that these things didn't matter.

What really did matter was the appalling political shape that the empire was in from civil war and, also, that Pizarro was an extraordinary leader, and he was extremely adept at playing one faction off against the other. And this kind of thing, the traditional way that people lose, from better generalship, is what mattered, not the technology so much.

YDSTIE: Let's talk a little bit more about the technology and the technological difference. One point that you make is that European technology was sort of based on compression, compression of metal and that sort of thing, while the Indian technology was--and particularly in South America, was focused on tension and the use of fibers.

Mr. MANN: Yeah. And a perfect example of that is these bridges that the Indians had, which were suspension bridges that would go over canyons and so forth. Suspension bridges at the time didn't exist in Europe, and the Spaniards at first refused to cross these bridges because they couldn't see what was holding them up. There was nothing underneath them. And there's all these letters where they'd say, `They have these incredible bridges. And guess what? You can actually walk across them.' Again, it's just a matter of a different kind of technology.

The Inca had a very, very sophisticated metallurgy, but for their purposes, metals were most important as a means of display, for their color. And so they had all these techniques for creating these very thin alloys that could be used to coat stuff. They were able to work with types of metals that the Europeans didn't understand. Yet they didn't have steel tools. And the reason was that metal wasn't valued in that way. They valued it for its flexibility, for its plasticity rather than its hardness.

YDSTIE: Let's talk a little bit about the predecessors to the Incas. One of the things that we understand because of research of the past couple of decades is that the Incas weren't the first highly developed culture in that area; there were several predecessor cultures. And that's part of what has been the most interesting work in this new research over the last few years.

Mr. MANN: Oh, yeah. If, you know, in 2,500 or 3,000 BC you were a martian and you had wanted to land in the most sophisticated cultures on Earth, you would have had a very limited number of choices. And one of them would have been the coast of Peru, where there was a group of cities, 20 or 30 small cities, probably the biggest urban complex on Earth at that point. And this was very much at the time of Sumeria and Egypt, and this has just been discovered. The age of the cities was first established in 2001, and last year was the first publication of this survey. And essentially wherever scientists have looked in the Americas, they've seen more evidence of more people doing more things at a higher level of complexity at a much earlier time than they had believed.

YDSTIE: Charles C. Mann is the author of "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus." Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. MANN: It was my pleasure.

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New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus

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