"1491" by Charles C. Mann
One of the basic premises Charles C. Mann develops in his book "1491" is that the indigenous peoples who inhabited all of the Americas arrived earlier and were much more populous than previously thought.
Mann believes, and presents evidence and scientific opinion, pro and con, that the native peoples most European colonists encountered in North America were already the remnants of greater civilizations, refugees, in effect, of cities that had been decimated by disease introduced by Europeans by as much as 95 percent.
"That's one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters," one anthropologist says, "Everything else - all the populated urbanized societies - was wiped out."
For example, in 1539, when De Soto marched through the American South East, he recorded the area "Thickly set with great towns, two or three of them to be seen from one," each protected by earthen walls, moats, and archers. In 1682, when LaSalle went through this very same area, it was deserted, not a town to be seen for 200 miles.
Mann says most historians and anthropologists believe the culprit was disease carried not so much by the men, but by the 300 pigs traveling with De Soto. In all of the Americas, he says, much less animal domestication went on than in Europe, so Indians never developed resistance to animals' many diseases which mutate and infect people. In addition, Mann relates a genetic susceptibility that inhibits the immune response, which proved deadly to their civilization because of their genetic homogeneity.
This genetic sameness is explained by theories of how Proto-Indians came to the Americas, an area of huge contemporary controversy. It used to be thought a group came to the Americas from Asia over the Bering Strait when the Ice Age had caught up a lot of water into snow and ice - a temperate land bridge arose over which people could walk into a new land, about 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. But not for long: The Ice Age started to subside about 15,000 years ago when the glaciers started to melt, and sea levels rose and subsumed the land bridge.
However, Mann details ways in which this date has been pushed back much, much further. Some studies based on mitochondrial DNA evidence push the date back to 43,000 years ago, before the Ice Age was even a factor. Another study from southern Chile shows evidence of human habitation from 32,000 years ago. Keep in mind that Chile is 10,000 miles from the Bering Strait - walking that far takes a long time.
In 1491 Charles Mann develops many more fascinating concepts in an accessible, readable style, presenting many sides (with over 100 pages of notes in the back). In fact, what he has to say alone about Indians manipulating their environment is worth the price of this volume. I can't recommend this book enough.
-Peggy Meyer is a library assistant at the Lake Tahoe Community College Library.