Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Indians and the "Wilderness"

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Review by John Bedell

In 1539, Hernando de Soto landed a small Spanish army in Florida and marched them a thousand miles overland to Louisiana. An account of the expedition by one of its officers gives us our first glimpse of the Indian societies of the southeastern US and the Mississippi Valley. As de Soto and his men passed down the Mississippi from somewhere near Memphis, they saw a landscape "thickly set with great towns," "two or three others to be seen from any one." When they stayed too long in one place they were sent on their way by volleys of arrows from armies they numbered in the thousands, and their crossing of the river was shadowed by a fleet of hundreds of war canoes brimming with warriors. In 1682 another European passed the same way. The Marquis de La Salle canoed the length of the Mississippi from modern St. Louis to its mouth, and he saw no towns, no armies, no fleets of boats. South of Memphis where de Soto saw so many towns, La Salle passed 200 miles without seeing so much as a campfire. The land was deserted.

What happened? Did de Soto lie? What about Cortes, who peopled the Aztec empire with 20 million souls, or Gaspar de Carvajal, who sailed down the Amazon in 1537 and said it was lined with fields and cities? How many Indians were there in 1491, and where did they go?

I have read few best-selling books that I can recommend as enthusiastically as Charles Mann's 1491. Mann, a journalist, has done an amazing amount of work: visited hundreds of archaeological sites, talked to hundreds of experts, read widely; there cannot be many professionals who have as sound a grasp of the current state of such a broad swath of scholarship as Mann. Mann's writing is very clear, and he tells many great stories. Even more impressive is Mann's understanding of the ideological underpinnings of what he is told. All debates about Indians and Europeans are intensely, bitterly political, and Mann always clearly lays out the agendas of the scholars and activists he talks to. But he does not use politics to dismiss anyone; after explaining their ideological or professional agendas, he goes on to discuss their ideas about the past in a remarkably balanced way. Because of his sensitivity and judgment, and the breadth of his research, Mann's book is the best available introduction to pre-Columbian America.

I do have one complaint about Mann, which is that he doesn't give a sufficient sense of how hard archaeology is. People tell him that, say, the Zapotec region of Mexico was a group of small independent towns, but because of increasing warfare they came to form two competing states, which were finally conquered by Monte Alban and joined into one empire, and I think, how on earth do they know? As Mann himself notes, now that we can decipher the Mayan script we know that the politics of the central Mayan region were quite different from the way they had been imagined just from looking at the monuments. My experience of archaeology is that even the most basic questions can be all but impossible to answer. Is that a defensive ditch and bank, or just an eroded gully? Is that spear point in that hearth, or is it in the layer above the hearth?  Were those houses occupied at the same time, or in sequence? Archaeologists ought to be more humble. They are not because making bold claims is the way to get publicity, tenure, and funding from National Geographic, but the rest of us ought to approach their claims with more caution than Mann does.

What does archaeology seem to be telling us about pre-Columbian America? In brief, that there were a great many Indians, and that they greatly modified the landscape within which they lived.  No one ever doubted that there were many people in the Inca empire, because they filled the Andes with their terraced fields built of stone. Many of those fields were abandoned after the conquest, and despite modern population growth some have still not been brought back into use.  Equally certain, if not so obvious, is the change that has taken over the Maya heartland of Guatemala and eastern Mexico. Today the Maya cities are surrounded by jungle, and the small clearings around the temples had to be hacked out with machetes before the modern world could appreciate their wonder. The populations of those cities, estimated at as much as 100,000 for the larger metropolises, were not supported by a bit of slash-and-burn agriculture in the forests. The Maya had cleared hundreds of square miles of the rain forest for intensive farming. Especially impressive are the thousands of acres of terraced fields in swamplands, built by digging drainage canals and piling the muck onto the adjacent plots. Today those old fields are celebrated for the great richness and diversity of the forests that grow on them, but there is really nothing natural about them, and a twelve hundred years ago they were covered with carefully tended plots of corn, squash, beans, and cotton.

More controversial are the histories of eastern North America and the Amazon. North American Indians now claim that their ancestors lived lightly on the land, and that when Europeans arrived the vast forests of their hunting grounds stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. There have always been hints, though, that this was not so. When Samuel de Champlain explored Massachusetts Bay, he saw no forests at all along the shore, only Indian fields. 

Accounts of the Chesapeake region are similar; one English pamphlet promoting emigration said that settlers would not have to clear their own fields, "for there are already great reaches of champion country cleared by the natives." Certainly much of the eastern landscape was forested, but those forests were not exactly "natural". Indians set fires in the woods for many purposes: to drive deer in great fall hunts, to clear land for farming, and to manage the woodland. The evidence of the burning is preserved as charcoal layers in the sediments of many ponds and bogs throughout the region. The charcoal becomes much thicker when corn-based agriculture was introduced to the region around 900 AD, but the first evidence of excessive burning goes back much further, to around 2500 BC. The burning changed the composition of the forests, encouraging species the Indians found useful, especially nut-bearing trees, which provided food for them and sustained larger deer herds. Because of the intensive burning, prairies spread into the eastern woodlands. Tracts measuring thousands of acres were described in colonial land patents as "range" or "desert,"and according to one account the entire Shenandoah Valley was grassland. Animals from the west such as bison and elk migrated eastward as far as the Atlantic, where European explorers saw and described them. The vast stretches of wild forests that figure in our memory of the frontier seem to have grown up after European disease reached the Indians around 1600, wiping out millions of them and disrupting their management of the land.

Indian land management may have had other, more subtle effects. I have always been puzzled by John Smith's glowing account of the fruits he saw around Jamestown, including strawberries and several kinds of plum trees. I have spent years of my life wandering the forests of the Chesapeake without seeing a single strawberry or native plum. One has to make allowances for the promotional side of Smith's writing, but he was a very astute observer and if he said he saw thickets of plum trees, I believe they were there. What happened to them? Most likely they had been created by the Indians, who encouraged the growth of the trees they wanted and cleared the others until they turned parts of the woodland into semi-wild orchards, much like Indians in the Amazon do today. As for the strawberries, they are plants of open fields, and they were growing in old corn fields that the Indians burned every year to keep trees from growing on them during the 10- to 20-year fallow period that restored their fertility in the Indian agricultural system.

As I said, the extent of Indian forest management in the U.S. is controversial, but the argument is muted and professional compared to the war that has broken out over the extent of Indian settlement in the Amazon. Gaspar de Carvajal, the conquistador who described cities along the river, was not a reliable observer like Smith or La Salle; it was his fanciful account of bow-wielding female warriors that gave the river its name. Besides, everyone knows that the soil of the rain forest is too poor to support intensive agriculture. Except that some of it isn't. All along the major rivers are stretches of what locals call "terra preta," deep, fertile loamy soil where gardens of manioc, beans and other staples thrive. Geologists have never been able to explain terra preta, but now a group of archaeologists thinks that these soils represent ancient Indian gardens. The Indians, in this view, learned how to burn the forests in a careful way that turned most of the wood into charcoal, which they worked into the soil. The soil was further enriched with regular loads of hearth ash, night soil, and every other kind of domestic trash, in effect turning hundreds of square miles of forest into enormous compost heaps. The evidence for human activity is in the form of potsherds, millions of which are mixed into the deep soils of some stretches of terra preta.

The Amazon, alas, is about the worst place in the world to do archaeology. The intensity of growth and rot obliterates almost all human artifacts in decades, ravaging bone, metal, wood, and fiber, and since the natives never made much use of stone, only pottery remains. If you found a large prehistoric settlement, how would you know? With such a paucity of data, investigators have to rely on educated guesswork, and when their results are challenged they fall back on the time-honored tradition of all scientists in data-poor fields: rhetoric, political posturing and savage personal attacks. Anna Roosevelt, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work promoting a large pre-Columbian Indian population, and Betty Meggers, leader of the "low count" faction, have become such bitter personal enemies that conflict between their supporters is poisoning the whole field of South American archaeology.

Of course, the argument about the Amazon is not just about its past, but about its present and future. Environmentalists working to preserve the rain forest have made powerful use of the argument that the rain forests are an irreplaceable treasure that could easily be lost forever, and that must be maintained to preserve the balance of the earth. What becomes of those arguments if we accept that a six hundred years ago the river was home to a thriving civilization with large towns and hundreds of thousands of acres of fields? "Low count" archaeologists frequently accuse high counters of promoting development in the Amazon, or just of promoting the destruction of the earth.

I think that whoever is right about the Indian population of the Amazon, there is something wrong with our whole notion of the "wilderness." If "wilderness" means a place that has not been changed by people, there are no wild places and there haven't been since people entered the Americas 13,000 years ago. The re-introduction of wolves to the American west has been hailed as a return to the "natural" state of affairs, when hunting by wolves, grizzly bears and cougars regulated the population of herbivores. Except that this is, in fact, the first time in the history of the world that such an ecosystem has ever existed. For the past 13,000 years the dominant predator throughout the Americas has been man. Before that, the dominant predators were, not timber wolves and grizzles, but saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and lions. The dominant herbivores were mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, ground sloths, glyptodons, and other extinct beasts. Grizzly bears, moose, and elk are not native to North America, but emigrated here in the wake of humans, occupying the niches left by extinct animals. The ecosystem taking form in Yellowstone is fascinating, but it is not ancient, and if "natural" means "without human influence", then it is natural only in a very limited sense.

I think we should discard the whole notion of "wilderness" as a place where the ecosystem excludes people. I don't mean that we shouldn't provide space for wolves, bear and elk in our world, but that we should be very careful of the idea that just staying away from a place will make it "natural." For example, the US National Park Service has for decades prohibited almost all hunting in national parks. The result, though, is not necessarily natural. In the eastern US, parks are now overrun with herds of deer numbering in the hundreds, something that the world may never have seen before 1970. Wolves not being a feasible deer control measure in the suburbs, there is really no alternative in those parks to human intervention. Debates over fire management have long been in the news, because when you get right down to it there is no way of even knowing how much fire is "natural" in a North America crowded with humans.

For good or ill, the world is in our hands. We can pretend to step away from certain parts of it, but sooty rain falls even on Antarctica. We should give less emphasis to leaving the "wild" parts of the world alone and more to our own role as stewards of the planet. We should consider the approach taken by North American Indians and think about how to manage the wild parts of the world. We should work out ways to promote biodiversity; if regular fires keep parts of the American west as a patchwork of different ecosystems instead of an endless pine forest, then perhaps we should encourage fires. There may be other ways we can encourage rare wild species, as the Indians encouraged plums, or as the old Maya terraces support fabulous tracts of rain forest. We should continue our efforts to limit the spread of invasive species, so the whole world doesn't end up with one ecosystem. In some areas forests may be weak because repeated logging has stripped the soil of manganese; perhaps we should think about ways to fertilize those areas and undo the damage we have done. As soon as our technology permits it we should work out how to clone extinct animals and bring them back into the world, starting with the aurochs and the Columbian mammoth. After all, noone stopped us from playing God when we caused their extinction, and reviving them would, to me, only be restoring a balance that we ourselves destroyed.

April 8, 2006

A Note on Numbers

How many Indians were there in 1491? I am suspicious of all these numbers, because the evidence is so weak, but I thought I would pass along the estimates Mann has collected. For the intensely studied area of central Mexico, estimates by "high counters" go as high as 25 million.

(The estimates of the dead given by Bartholomeo de las Casas, chronicler of the disaster, ranged from was 12 to 40 million.) Since there were about 1.2 million Indians living in Mexico in 1750, more than 95% of the population may have been lost. "Low counters" used to make estimates in the range of 2 to 4 million, but of late they have shied away from the whole business of giving numbers.

High count estimates of the population of the Americas in 1491 are on the order of 80 to 100 million. By most counts there were 5 to 10 million Indians in 1800. Almost all of the loss was caused by disease.

A Note on When People First Came to the Americas

The weakest section of Mann's book treats the question of when and how people first crossed to the Americas. This field is much in ferment right now. The "traditional" position in the debate is what we call "Clovis first," which means that the first occupants were the makers of the big fluted points we call Clovis points, who spread from southern Canada to central Mexico around 13,000 years ago. However, there are now several purported human habitation sites with radiocarbon dates in the range of 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. The is also increasing debate about how people got here: through an "ice-free corridor" across Canada? Down the now drowned Pacific coast? Across the Atlantic in boats?

All pre-Clovis arguments have problems. First, no two of the alleged pre-Clovis sites are alike; here is no pre-Clovis culture, just a random assemblage of unique sites. Second, the genetic evidence points increasingly to a single early migration (with much later intrusions by Athapascans and Eskimos), and it convincingly links all living Indians to an origin in central Siberia. Third, the first evidence of human impacts on the environment (extinctions, fires) dates to Clovis times. So if there were pre-Clovis people, they somehow lived without having any effect on the environment, in disparate small bands that never spread or grew, and they were completely wiped out by Clovis people, leaving no known descendants.

From the 
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We Christians have destroyed so many kingdoms, for wherever the Spaniards have passed, conquering and discovering, it is as though a fire had burned, destroying everyting in its path.

--Pedro Cieza de Leon


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