1491: the Americas before Amerigo


1491 – New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C Mann

Introduction – Holmberg’s Mistake

1. A View from Above

See: Nomads of the Long Bow for an account of the Siriono of Beni (Bolivia)


“In addition to building roads, causeways, canals, dikes, reservoirs, mounds, raised agricultural fields, and possibly ball courts [archaeologist Clark] Erickson has argued, the Indians who lived there before Columbus trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grassland. The trapping was not a matter of a few isolated natives with nets, but a society-wide effort in which hundreds or thousands of people fashioned dense, zigzagging networks of earthen fish weirds (fish-corralling fences) among the causeways. Much of the savannah is natural, the result of seasonal flooding. But the Indians maintained and expanded the grasslands by regularly setting huge areas on fire. Over the centuries the burning created an intricate ecosystem of fire-adapted plant species dependent on indigenous pyrophilia.”


“Researchers have long known that a second, independent Neolithic Revolution occurred in Mesoamerica. The exact timing is uncertain – archaeologists keep pushing back the date – but it is now thought to have occurred about ten thousand years ago, not long after the Middle East’s Neolithic Revolution. In 2003, though, archaeologists discovered ancient seeds from cultivated squashes in coastal Ecuador, at the foot of the Andes, which may be older than any agricultural remains in Mesoamerica – a third Neolithic Revolution. This Neolithic Revolution probably led, among many other things, to the cultures in the Beni. The two American Neolithics spread more slowly than their counterpart in Eurasia, possibly because Indians in many places had not had the time to build up the requisite population density, and possibly because of the extraordinary nature of the most prominent Indian crop, maize.”


“About seven thousand years elapsed between the dawn of the Middle Eastern Neolithic and the establishment of Sumer. Indians navigated the same path in somewhat less time (the data are too sketchy to be more precise). Pride of place must go to the Olmec, the first technologically complex culture in the hemisphere. Appearing in the narrow ‘waist’ of Mexico about 1800BC, they lived in cities and towns centered on temple mounds.”


“Arguably [the Olmec‘s] greatest intellectual feat was the invention of zero. In his classic account Number: The Language of Science, the mathematician Tobias Dantzig called the discovery of zero ‘one of the greatest single accomplishments of the human race,’ a ‘turning point’ in mathematics, science, and technology. The first whisper of zero in the Middle East occurred about 600BC. … Sanskrit mathematicians first used zero in its contemporary sense – a number, not a placeholder – sometimes in the first few centuries AD. it didn’t appear in Europe until the twelfth century. … Meanwhile, the first recorded zero in the Americas occurred in a Maya carving from 357AD, possibly before the Sanskrit.”


“The state closest to the Beni was based around lake Titicaca, the 120-mile-long alpine lake that crosses the Peru-Bolivia border. Most of this region has an altitude of twelve thousand feet or more. Summers are short; winters are correspondingly long. … But in fact the lake is comparatively warm, and s the land surrounding it is less beaten by frost than the surrounding highlands. Taking advantage of the better climate, the village of Tiwanaku, one of many settlements around the lake, began after about 800BC to drain the wetlands around the rivers that flowed into the lake from the south. A thousand years later the village had grown to become the center of a large polity, also known as Tiwanaku.

“Less a centralized state than a clutch of municipalities under the common religio-cultural sway of the center, Tiwanaku took advantage of the extreme ecological differences among the Pacific coast, the rugged mountains, and the altiplano (the high plains) to create a dense web of exchange: fish from the sea; llamas from the altiplano; fruits, vegetables, and grains from the fields around the lake. Flush with wealth, Tiwanaku city swelled into a marvel of terraced pyramids and grand monuments. Stone breakwaters extended far out into Lake Titicaca, thronged with long-prowed boats made of reeds. With its running water, closed sewers, and gaudily painted walls, Tiwanaku was among the world’s most impressive cities.

“North and west of Tiwanaku in what is now southern Peru, was the rival state of Wari, which then ran for almost a thousand miles along the spine of the Andes. More tightly organized and military minded than Tiwanaku, the rulers of Wari stamped out cookie-cutter fortresses and stationed them all along their borders. The capital city – called, eponymously, Wari – was in the heights, near the modern city of Ayacucho.”


“Europe was racked by a ‘little ice age’ of extreme cold between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet historians rarely attribute the rise and fall of European states in that period to climate change. Fierce winters helped drive the Vikings from Greenland and led to bad harvests that exacerbated social tensions in continental Europe, but few would claim that the little ice age caused the Reformation. Similarly, the mega-Niños were but one of many stresses on Andean civilizations at the time, stresses that in their totality neither Wari nor Tiwanaku had the political resources to survive. Soon after 1000AD Tiwanaku split into flinders that would not be united for another four centuries, when the Inka swept them up Wari also fell. It was succeeded and perhaps taken over by a state called Chimor, which oversaw an empire that sprawled over central Peru until it, too, was absorbed by the Inka.”


“By the early 1990s [Universidad Autónoma de Campeche’s William J.] Folan’s team had learned that the long-ignored [Calakmul] covered as much as twenty-five square miles and had thousands of buildings and dozens of reservoirs and canals. It was the biggest-ever Maya polity. … In 1994 [researchers] identified the city-state’s ancient name: Kaan, the Kingdom of the Snake. Six years later they discovered that Kaan was the focus of a devastating war that convulsed the Maya city-state for more than a century. And Kaan is just one of the score of Maya settlements hat in the last few decades have been investigated for the first time.”


“[In] the hills of what are now Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero…are the quarrelsome, splintered city-states of the Mixtec, finally overwhelming the Zapotec, their ancient rivals based in the valley city of Monte Albán. Further north, expanding their empire in a hot-brained hurry, are the Toltec, sweeping in every direction from the mile-high basin that today houses Mexico City.”


“Not long ago archaeologists with new techniques unraveled the tragedy of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, which was once the greatest population center north of the Río Grande. Construction began in about 1000AD on an earthen structure that would eventually cover fifteen acres and rise to a height of about a hundred feet, higher than anything around it for miles. Atop the mound was the temple for the divine kings, who arranged for the weather to favor agriculture. As if to lend them support, fields of maize rippled out from the mound almost as far as the eye could see.”

“By 1000AD, trade relationships had covered the continent for more than a thousand years; mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Mexico has been found in Manitoba, and Lake Superior copper in Louisiana.”


“the Western Hemisphere before 1492]…was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worse. Much of this world vanished as people do everywhere.”

 Part One – Numbers from Nowhere

  1. Why Billington Survived


“This chapter and the next will explore how two different Indian societies, the Wampanoag and the Inka, reacted to the incursions from across the sea. … The accounts of the initial encounters between Indians and Europeans are windows into the past, even if the glass is smeared and distorted by the chroniclers’ prejudices and misapprehensions.”

“…although the stories of early contact – the Wampanoag with the British, the Inka with the Spanish – are as dissimilar as their protagonists, many archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have recently come to believe that they have deep commonalities.”


“Around two thousand years ago, Hopewell jumped into prominence from its bases in the Midwest, establishing trade network that covered most of North America. The Hopewell culture introduced monumental earthworks and, possibly, agriculture to the rest of the cold North. Hopewell villages, unlike their more egalitarian neighbors, were stratified, with powerful, priestly rulers commanding a mass of commoners. Archaeologists have found no evidence of large-scale warfare at this time, and thus suggest that Hopewell probably did not achieve its dominance by conquest.”


“Hopewell itself declined around 400AD. But its trade network remained intact. Shell beads from Florida, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and mica from Tennessee found their way to the Northeast. Borrowing technology and ideas from the Midwest, the nomadic peoples of New England transformed their societies. By the first millennium AD agriculture was spreading rapidly and the region was becoming an unusual patchwork of communities, each with its preferred terrain, way of subsistence, and cultural style.”


Tisquantum’s childhood wetu (home) was formed from arched poles lashed together into a dome that was covered in winter by tightly woven rush mats and in summer by thin sheets of chestnut ark. A fire burned constantly in the center, the smoke venting through a hole in the center of the roof. English visitors did not find this arrangement peculiar; chimneys were just coming into use in Britain, and most homes there, including those of the wealthy, were still heated by fires beneath central roof holes. or did the English regard the Dawnland wetu as primitive; its multiple layers of mats, which trapped insulating layers of air, were ‘warmer than our English houses,’ sighed the colonist William Wood. The wetu was less leaky than the typical English wattle-and-daub house, too. Wood did not conceal his admiration for the way Indian mats ‘deny entrance to any drop of rain, though it come both fierce and long.”


“The primary goal of Dawnland educating was molding character. Men and women were expected to be brave, hardy, honest, and uncomplaining. Chatterboxes and gossips were frowned upon. ‘He that speaks seldom and opportunely, being as good as his word, is the only man they love,’ Wood explained. Character formation began early, with family games of tossing naked children into the snow. (They were pulled out quickly and placed next to the fire, in a practice reminiscent of Scandinavian saunas.) When Indian boys came of age, they spent an entire winter alone in the forest, equipped only with a bow, a hatchet, and a knife. These methods worked, the awed Wood reported. ‘Beat them, whip them, pinch them, punch them, if [the Indians] resolve not to flinch for it, they will not.”


“Sixteenth-century New England housed 100,000 people or more, a figure that was slowly increasing. Most of those people lived in shoreline communities, where rising numbers were beginning to change agriculture from an option to a necessity. These bigger settlements required more centralized administration; natural resources like good land and spawning streams, though not scarce, now needed to be managed. In consequence, boundaries between groups were becoming more formal.”


“Inside the settlement was a world of warmth, family, and familiar custom. But the world outside, as Thomas put it, was ‘a maze of confusing actions and individuals fighting to maintain an existence in the shadow of change.’

“And that was before the Europeans showed up.”


“Time and time again Europeans described the People of the First Light as strikingly healthy specimens. Eating an incredibly nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in. … Because famine and epidemic disease had been rare in the Dawnland, its inhabitants had none of the pox scars or rickety limbs common on the other side of the Atlantic.”

3. In the Land of Four Quarters


“In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude… The empire encompassed every imaginable type of terrain, from the rainforest of upper Amazonia to the deserts of the Peruvian coast and the twenty-thousand-foot peaks of the Andes between.”


“The Inka empire, the greatest state ever seen in the Andes, was also the shortest lived. It began in the fifteenth century and lasted barely a hundred years before being smashed by Spain.”


“At the heart of the new Qosqo was the plaza of Awkaypata, 625 feet by 550 feet, carpeted almost in its entirety with white sand carried in from the Pacific and raked daily by the city’s army of workers. Monumental villas and temples surrounded the space on three sides, their walls made from immense blocks of stone so precisely cut and fit that Pizarro’s younger cousin Pedro, who accompanied the conqueror as a page, reported ‘that the point f a pin could not have been inserted in one of the joints.’ Across facades ran enormous plates of polished gold. When the alpine sun filled Awkaypata with its boldly delineated horizontal plain of white sand and sloping sheets of gold, the space became an amphitheater for the exaltation of light.

“In Pachakuti’s grand design, Awkaypata was the center of the empire – and the cosmos. From the great plaza radiated four highways that demarcated the four asymmetrical sectors into which he divided the empire. Tawantinsuyu, ‘Land of the Four Quarters.’ To the Inka, the quarters echoed the heavenly order. The Milky Way, a vast celestial river in Andean cosmology, crosses the Peruvian sky at an angle of about twenty-eight degrees to the earth’s orbit. For six months the stream of stars slants across the sky from, so to speak, northeast to southwest; the other six months it slants from southeast to northwest. The transition roughly coincide with the transition between dry and wet seasons – the time when the Milky Way releases life-giving water to Pacha Mama, Mother Earth – and divides the heavens into four quarters. Awkaypata, reflecting this pattern, was the axis of the universe.

“Not only that, Qosqo was the center of a second spiritual pattern. Radiating out from Awkaypata was a drunken spider web of forty-one crooked, spiritually powerful lines, known as zeq’e, that linked holy features of the landscape: springs, tombs, caves, shrines, fields, stones. About four hundred of these wak’a (shrines, more or less) existed around Qosqo – the landscape around the capital was charged with telluric power. (The zeq’e also played a role in the Inka calendar, which apparently consisted of forty-one eight day weeks.)”


“European-style roads, constructed with horses and cars in mind, view flatness as a virtue; to go up a steep hill, they use switchbacks to make the route as horizontal as possible. Inka roads, by contrast, were built for llamas. Llamas prefer the coolness of high altitudes and, unlike horses, readily go up and down steps. As a result, Inka roads eschewed valley bottoms and used long stone stairways to climb up steep hills directly – brutal on horses’ hooves, as the conquistadors often complained.”


“When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, [anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns] argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled he virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in places that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.”

  1. Frequently Asked Questions


“The calamity wreaked by the De Soto expedition…extended across the whole Southeast. The societies of the Caddo, on the Texas-Arkansas border, and the Coosa, in western Georgia, both disintegrated soon after. The Caddo had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After De Soto’s army left the Caddo stopped erecting community centers and began digging community cemeteries.”


“…some Old World populations were just as vulnerable as Naive Americans to those diseases, and likely for the same reason. Indians’ closest genetic relatives are indigenous Siberians. They did not come into substantial contact with Europeans until the sixteenth century, when Russian fur merchants overturned their governments, established military outposts throughout the region, and demanded furs in tribute. In the train of Russian fur market came Russian disease, notably smallpox.”


“Cultures are like books, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once remarked, each a volume in the great library of humankind. In the sixteenth century, more books were burned than ever before or since. How many Homers vanished? How many Hesiods? What great works of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music vanished or never were created? Languages, prayers, dreams, habits, and hopes – all gone. And not just once, but over and over again. … How can one assay the total impact of the unprecedented calamity that gave rise to the world we live in? It seems important to try.”


“Teotihuacan fell in the eighth century for reasons yet unknown, but left an enduring mark in central Mexico. Three hundred years afterward the rising Toltec styled themselves its heirs. They, too, built an empire, which feel amid internal dissension in about 1200 AD. The collapse of the Toltec created an opening in the warm, fertile basin. Into it moved half a dozen groups from the northern and western desert, the Mexica among them.”


“A visionary and a patriot, Tlacaelel believed that the Mexica were destined to rule a vast empire. But because ambition succeeds best when disguised by virtue, he wanted to furnish the Alliance with an animating ideology – a manifest destiny, as it were, or mission civilisatrice. H came up with a corker: a theogony that transformed the Mexica into keepers of the cosmic order.

“At its center was Huitzilopochtli, a martial god who wore a helmet shaped like a hummingbird’s head and carried a fire-breathing serpent as a weapon. Huitzilopochtli had long been the Mexico’s patron deity. It was he who had entered the Mexica priest’s dream to explain where to found Tenochtitlan. After the formation of the Triple Alliance, Tlacaelel ‘went about persuading the people,’ as one Mexica historian wrote, that Huitzilopochtli was not a mere tutelary deity, but a divinity essential to the fate of humankind.

“At the apex of the celestial hierarchy stood Ometeotl, the omnipresent sustainer of the cosmos, ‘the Lord of the Close Vicinity’ in Nahuatl. In Tlacaelel’s vision, Ometeotl had four sons, one of whom was Huitzilopochtli. These four sons had been vying for supremacy since the beginning of time; the history of the universe was mainly a record of their endless struggle.”


“Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way.”

“Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures.”


“Tenochitlan dazzled its invaders – it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples ad immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens – none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never conceived of such a thing.)”

PART TWO – Very Old Bones

5. Pleistocene Wars


“In the 1990s geologists laid out data indicating that the ice sheets were bigger and longer lasting than had been thought, and that even when the ice-free corridor existed it was utterly inhospitable. Worse, archaeologists could find no traces of paleo-Indians (or the big mammals they supposedly hunted) in the corridor from the right time. Meanwhile, paleontologists learned that about two-thirds of the species that vanished did so a little before Clovis appeared in the archaeological record. Finally, Clovis people may not have enjoyed hunting that much. Of the seventy-six Us paleo-Indian camps surveyed by Meltzer and Donald K Grayson, an archaeologist at the University of Washington at Seattle only fourteen showed evidence of big-game hunting, all of it just two species, mastodon and bison. ‘he overkill hypothesis lives on,’ the two men sneered, ‘not because of [support from] archaeologists and paleontologists who are experts in the area, but because it keeps getting repeated by those of us who are not.’


“…the collapse of the Clovis consensus means that archaeologists must consider unorthodox possibilities, including that some other people preceded the ancestors of today’s Indians into the Americas. Numerous candidates exist for these pre-paleo-Indians, among them the Lagoa Santa people, whose skulls more resemble the skulls of Australian aborigines than those of Native Americans. Skull gauging is, at best, an inexact science, an most archaeologists have dismissed the notion of an Australian role in American prehistory. But in the fall of 2003 an article in the journal Nature about ancient skulls in Baja California revived this possibility. Aborigines, in one scenario, may have traveled from Australia to Tierra del Fuego via Antarctica. Or else there was a single ancestral population split, with the ancestors of Australians heading in one direction and the ancestors of Indians heading in another.”


“What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the ‘New World.’ Britain…was empty until about 12,500BC, because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty to mankind and its works.”

 6. Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize

(Tales of Two Civilizations, Part I)


“The first and better known [wellspring of human civilization in the Americas] is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century.

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitant had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.”


“if the anti-Clovis arguments are correct, paleo-Indians walked or paddled to Peru fifteen thousand years ago or more. But Peru’s first known inhabitants appear in the archaeological record sometime before 10,000 BC. According to two studies in Science in 1998, these people apparently lived part of the year in the foothills, gathering and hunting (for the latter, no traces of Clovis points have been found). When winter came, they hiked to the warmer coast. At Quebrada Jaguay, a dry streambed on the nation’s southern coast that was one of the two sites described in Science, they dug up wede clams and chased schools of six-inch drumfish with nets. They carried their catch to their base, which was about five miles from shore. (Quebrada means ‘ravine’ and often refers to the gullies caused by flash floods.) Quebrada Tacahuay, the other Science site was closer to the shore but even drier, its average annual rainfall is less than a quarter inch. The site, exposed by the construction of a road, is an avian graveyard. On their annual travels between the foothills and the shore, the paleo-Indians seem to have visited the area periodically to feast on the cormorants and boobies that nested on the rocks by the beach.”

“Some groups had settled into mountain caves, skewering deer-sized vicuna on spears; others plucked fish from mangrove swamps; still others stayed on the beach as their forebears had, weaving nets an setting them into the water. In the parched Atacama Desert, the Chinchorro created history’s first mummies.”


“In 1975 Michael Moseley, the Florida archaeologist, drew together this own work in Aspero and earlier research by Peruvian and other researchers into what has been called the MFAC hypothesis: the maritime foundation of Andean civilization. He proposed that there was little subsistence agriculture around Aspero because it was a center of fishing, and that the later, highland Peruvian cultures, including the mighty Inka, all had their origins not in the mountains but in the great fishery of the Humboldt Current. Rather than being founded on agriculture, the ancient cities of coastal Peru drew their sustenance from the sea.”

“If the MFAC hypothesis was true, early civilization in Peru was in one major respect strikingly unlike early civilization in Peru was in one major respect strikingly unlike early civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. Farming, the cornerstone of the complex societies in the rest of the world, was in Peru an afterthought.”


“Established in 2001, [a] tortilla store [named Itanoni] is an innovative attempt to preserve one of the earth’s greatest cultural and biological assets: the many local varieties of maize in the narrow ‘waist’ of southern Mexico. The isthmus is a medley of mountains, beaches, wet tropical forests, and dry savannas, and is the most ecologically diverse area in Mesoamerica. ‘Some parts of Oaxaca go up nine thousand feet,’ T. Boone Hallberg, a botanist at the Oaxaca Institute of Technology, told me. ‘Other parts are at sea level. Sometimes the soil is very acid, sometimes it’s quite basic – all within a few hundred feet. You can go on either side of a highway, and the climate will be different on the east side than on the west side.’ The area’s human geography is equally diverse: it is the home of more than a dozen major Indian groups, how have a long and fractious history. Despite the strife among them, all of them played a role in the region’s greatest achievement, the development of Mesoamerican agriculture, arguably the world’s most ecologically savvy form of farming, and of its centerpiece, Zea mays, the crop known to agronomists as maize.”


“Like other grasses, teosinte shatters, but there is no known nonshattering variant. (At least sixteen genes control teosinte and maize shattering, a situation so complex that geneticists have effectively thrown up their hands after trying to explain how a nonshattering type might have appeared spontaneously.) o known wild ancestor, no obvious natural way to evolve a nonshattering variant, no way to propagate itself – little wonder that the Mexican National Museum of Culture claiming a 1982 exhibition that maize ‘was not domesticated, but created” – almost from scratch.”


“…the variety in Mexican maize is startling. Red, blue, yellow, orange, black, pink, purple, creamy white, multicolored – the jumble of colors in Mesoamerican maize reflects the region’s jumble of cultures and ecological zones. One place may have maize with cobs the size of a baby’s hand and little red kernels no bigger than grains of rice that turn into tiny puffs when popped; in another valley will be maize with two-foot-long cobs with great puffy kernels that Mexicans float in soup like croutons. ‘Every variety has its own special use,’ Ramirez Leyva explained to me. ‘This one is for holidays, this one makes tortillas, this one friquatole [a kind of maize gelatin], this one for tejate,’ a cold drink in which maize flour, mamey pits, fermented white cacao beans, and other ingredients are marinated in water overnight and then sweetened and whipped to a froth. As a rule, domesticated plants are less genetically diverse than wild species, because breeders try to breed out characteristics they don’t want. Maize is one of the few farm species that is more diverse than most wild plants.”


“According to a survey by Perales, 85 percent of the farmers [of San Juan Chamula] plant the same maize landraces as their fathers, varieties that have been passed on for and maintained for generations. The crop in the field today is the sum of thousands of individual choices made by community members in the past.

“Indian farmers grow maize in what is called a milpa. The term means ‘maize field,’ but refers to something considerably more complex. A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once, including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato, jicama, amaranth, and mucuna. In nature, wild beans and squash often grow in the same field as teosinte. The milpa is an elaboration of this natural situation, unlike ordinary [sic] farms, which involve single-crop expanses of a sort rarely observed in unplowed landscapes.”


“Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. …beans and maize make a nutritionally complete meal. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, ‘is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.'”

7. Writing, Wheels, and Bucket Brigades

(Tales of Two Civilizations, Part II)


“Writing begins with counting. When a culture grows big enough, it acquires an elite, which needs to monitor things it considers important: money, stored goods, births and deaths, the progression of time.”


“In Mesoamerica, timekeeping provided the stimulus that accounting gave to the Middle East. Like contemporary astrologers, the Olmec, Maya, and Zapotec believed that celestial phenomena like the phases of the moon and Venus affect daily life. To measure and predict these portents requires careful sky watching and a calendar. Strikingly, Mesoamerican societies developed three calendars: a 365-day secular calendar like the contemporary calendar; a 260-day sacred calendar that was like no other calendar on earth; and the equally unique Long Count, a one-by-one tally of the days since a fixed starting point thousands of years ago. Establishing these three calendars required advances in astronomy; synchronizing them required ventures into mathematics.”


“…what took the Sumerians six thousand years apparently occurred in Mesoamerica in fewer than a thousand. Indeed, Mesoamerican societies during that time created more than a dozen systems of writing, some of which are known only from a single brief text.”

PART III – Landscape with Figures

  1. Made in America


“Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning and undergrowth increased the number of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry brambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak.”


“(‘Hopewell’ refers to the farmer on whose property an early site was discovered.) Based in southern Ohio, the Hopewell interaction sphere lasted until about 400 AD and extended across two-thirds of what is now the United States. Into the Midwest came seashells from the Gulf of Mexico, silver from Ontario, fossil shark’s teeth from Chesapeake Bay, and obsidian from Yellowstone. In return the Hopewell exported ideas: the bow and arrow, monumental earthworks, fired pottery, and, probably most important, the Hopewell religion.

“The Hopewell apparently sought spiritual ecstasy by putting themselves into trances, perhaps aided by tobacco. In this enraptured state, the soul journeys to other worlds. As is usually the case, people with special abilities emerged to assist travelers through the portal to the numinous. Over time these shamans became gatekeepers, controlling access to the supernatural realm.”

9. Amazonia


“In a boldly written article…, [Smithsonian archaeologist Betty J.] Meggers proclaimed…:

 There is a force at work to which man through his culture must bow. This determinant operates uniformly regardless of time, place (within the forest), psychology or race. Its leveling effect appears to be inescapable. Even modern efforts to implant civilization in the South American tropical forest have met with defeat, or survive only with constant assistance from the outside. In short, the environmental potential of the tropical forest is sufficient to allow the evolution of culture to proceed only to the level represented by [slash-and-burn farmers]g; further indigenous evolution is impossible, and any more highly evolved culture attempting to settle and maintain itself in the tropical forest environment will inevitably decline to the [slash-and-burn] level.


Painted Rock Cave became inhabited again in about 6000 BC. Probably it was no more than temporary shelter, a refuge when floodwaters go too high. People could have brought in loads of turtles and shellfish, bolt a fire in the shelter of the cave, and enjoyed the feel for dry land. In any case, these people… had ceramic bowls, red- to gray-brown. Found at Painted Rock Cave and other places in the area, it is the oldest known pottery in the Americas.

“And so there were two occupations: one very old, with ceramics; the other even older, without them.”


“Rainfall, drumming down day in and day out, pounds the top few inches of earth into slurry from which nutrients are easily leached and which itself easily washes away. In uncut forest, the canopy intercepts precipitating, absorbing the physical impact of its fall from the clouds. The water eventually spills from the leaves, but it hits the ground less violently. When farmers or loggers clear the tree cover, droplets shoot at the ground with more than twice as much force.

“Slash-and-burn minimizes the time in which the ground is unprotected. Intensive agriculture is much more productive but maximizes the land’s exposure. This painful trade-off is why ecologists argue that any attempt by tropical forest societies to grow beyond small villages has always been doomed to fail.

“According to Charles R Clement, an anthropological botanist at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) in Manaus, though, the first Amazonians did avoid the Dilemma of Rainfall Physics. Speaking broadly, their solution was not to clear the forest but to replace it with one adapted to human use. They set up shop on the bluffs that mark the edge of high water – close enough to the river to fish, far enough to avoid the flood. And then, rather than centering their agriculture on annual crops, they focused on the Amazon’s wildly diverse assortment of trees.”


“Throughout Amazonia, farmers prize terra preta [rich, fertile “Indian dark earth”] for is great productivity; some have worked it for years with minimal fertilization. … Because terra preta is subject to the same punishing conditions as the surrounding bad soils, ‘its existence is very surprising,’ according to Bruno Glaser, a chemist at the Institute of Soil Science and Soil Geography at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. ‘If you read the textbooks, it shouldn’t be there.'”


“As a rule, terra preta has more ‘plant-available’ phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, and nitrogen than is common in the rain forest; it also has much more organic matter, better retains moisture and nutrients, and is not rapidly exhausted by agricultural use when managed well. The key to terra preta‘s long-term fertility, Glaser says, is charcoal: terra preta contains up to sixty-four times more of it than surrounding red earth. Organic matter ‘sticks’ to charcoal, rather than being washed away or attaching to other, nonavailable compounds. …But simply mixing charcoal into the ground is not enough to create terra preta. Because charcoal contains few nutrients, Glaser argued, ‘high-nutrient inputs – excrement and waste such as turtle, fish, and animal bones – are necessary.'”


“Instead of completely burning organic matter to ash, ancient farmers burned it incompletely to make charcoal, then stirred the charcoal into the soil. In addition to its benefits tot eh soil, slash-and-char releases much less carbon into the air than slash-and-burn, which has large potential implications for climate change.”

 10. The Artificial Wilderness


“…Columbus set off an ecological explosion of a magnitude unseen since the Ice Ages. Some species were shocked into decline (most prominent among them Homo sapiens, which in the century and a half after Columbus lost a fifth of its number, mainly to disease). Others stumbled into new ecosystems and were transformed into environmental overlords: picture-book illustrations of what scientists call ‘ecological release.’

“In ecological release, an organism escapes its home and parachutes into an ecosystem that has never encountered it before. the majority of such escapees die rapidly, unable to thrive or reproduce in novel surroundings. Most of the survivors find a quiet niche and settle in, blending inconspicuously with the locals. But a few, finding themselves in places with few or none of their natural enemies…wreak havoc.”


“Until Columbus, Indians were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere. Annually burning undergrowth, clearing and replanting forests, building canals and raising fields, hunting bison and netting salmon, growing maize, manioc, and the Eastern Agricultural Complex, Native Americans had been managing their environment for thousands of years. As Cahokia shows, hey made mistakes. But by and large they modified their landscapes in stable, supple, resilient ways. Some milpa areas have been farmed for thousands of years – time in which farmers in Mesopotamia and North Africa and parts of India ruined their land. Even the wholesale transformation seen in places like Peru, where irrigated terraces cover huge areas, were exceptionally well done. But all of these efforts required close, continual oversight. In the sixteenth century, epidemics removed the boss.”


“When disease swept Indians from the land, this entire ecological ancien regime collapsed. … ‘The post-Columbian abundance of bison,’ in [19th C. Historian Valerius Geist’s] view, was largely due to ‘Eurasian diseases that decreased [Indian] hunting.’ The massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again.

“The same may have held true for many other species.”


“When the newcomers moved west, they were preceded by a wave of disease and then a wave of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to tamp down and it was followed by many aftershocks. ‘The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,’ wrote historian Stephen Pyne, ‘it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.’ Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it.”


“Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors.

“Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens.

“Gardens are fashioned for many purposes with many different tools, but all are collaborations with natural forces. Rarely do their makers claim to be restoring or rebuilding anything from the past; and they are never in full control of the results. instead, using the best tools they have and all the knowledge that they can gather, they work to create future environments.”


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