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The Myth of an Empty Frontier

Explorers' diseases wiped out native populations long before settlers arrived

The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Reviewed by Mary D'Ambrosio

The early European explorers went gaga over the abundance of the Americas. Primeval forests covered the land, deer and elk were plentiful, and herds of bison thundered across the plains, they reported back to Spain, Portugal and England.
Fish filled the rivers, and mussels and clams grew big and juicy along the shores. From South America came tales of unimaginable riches buried in secret gold mines in pristine jungle. And save for a few powerful but isolated societies, such as the Inca in Peru and the Maya in Mexico, and nomadic bands of primitives up north, almost no one lived in this fantastic paradise. These lush lands -- a gift from God! -- were wild and free.

That's the textbook version of the New World at the time of Columbus, the one you probably learned in school. But in a provocative new book, "1491," science writer Charles C. Mann proposes a revision. Mann, a contributing editor for Science and the Atlantic Monthly, explores a growing body of archaeological, anthropological and historical scholarship to suggest that this convenient version of virgin American wilderness is likely completely wrong.

"At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush," Mann concludes. By the highest estimates, more than a 100 million people may have lived in this hemisphere -- more than in Europe at the time -- before Columbus arrived.

As much as two-thirds of the continental United States had once been farmed, the lands terraced, irrigated and built into mysterious mounds that marked settlements. In Mexico, indigenous peoples had already invented maize; created bountiful gardens of tomatoes and beans; and developed astronomy, math and writing in ways that rivaled the speed and sophistication of the Sumerians. Nor were Indians just part of the scenery: Mann suggests that Indian traditions of personal autonomy and social equality may have been the primary inspiration for American colonists' attitudes about freedom and equality, and that they influenced the writings of John Locke, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

What accounts for such a revisionist world view? In a Jared Diamond-like volley that challenges prevailing thinking about global development, Mann explores the most recent generation of scholarship that increasingly suggests that an enormous indigenous population was wiped out by European diseases.

Epidemics like smallpox ripped through the hemisphere in the 16th through 18th centuries, he argues, to a far greater extent than previously thought. Disease created an ecological collapse that so decimated Indian societies that they could no longer control their environment.

That's why so much land seemed "pristine" to the explorers, missionaries and settlers who arrived in the subsequent 100 to 200 years. Explorer- conquerors such as Francisco Pizarro in Peru, Hernán Cortés in Mexico and early slave traders from Hispaniola spread dread diseases like smallpox, killing off some 95 percent of the pre-Columbian population in a largely accidental holocaust.

Wrongly assumed to be isolated bands of hunter-gatherers who had roamed the forests from time immemorial, the "primitives" later explorers met were actually traumatized refugees, remnant groups of smashed societies.

Improbable? Plenty of archaeologists and anthropologists think so, and Mann conscientiously explores the other side of this raging academic battle. He interviews the best-known critic, African studies professor David Henige of the University of Wisconsin, who, in his book "Numbers From Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate," protests the lack of proof to back conclusions of a mass death. "We can make of the historical record that there was depopulation and movement of people from internecine warfare and disease," Henige tells Mann. "But as for how much, who knows?" This battle is, of course, political as well as scientific. Indian affairs activists have long protested that Europeans intentionally undercounted and minimized the achievements of native peoples, the better to justify occupation. "It's perfectly acceptable to move into unoccupied land," a University of Saskatchewan ethnologist says in the book. "And land with only a few 'savages' is the next best thing." But Mann argues convincingly for treating these conclusions seriously. The ideas come not from some maverick's "eureka" discovery but from the slow buildup of evidence from more and farther-flung archaeological digs, the development of better dating technology and more studies of the historical record. That record is, of course, still partial and circumstantial.

The Spanish destroyed all but four Mayan books (although some 15,000 samples of writing on monuments, murals and pottery still exist), and American Indians of the U.S. Southwest had no writing of a style modern researchers understand. "Piecing together events from these sources is like trying to understand the U.S. Civil War from the plaques on park statues," Mann admits. "Possible, but tricky."

So evidence tends to be anecdotal and subject to a lot of conjecture. We're treated to Giovanni da Verrazzano's narratives about a "densely populated" American coastline; Bartolomé de las Casas' notes of "a beehive of people" along a southern route; and the comments of Amazon expedition chronicler Gaspar de Carvajal (originator of the myth of the Amazon fighting women), who wrote of wealthy, warlike riverside towns that blanketed the shore for some 180 miles. That later explorers report these same precincts empty is cited as evidence of mass death. The skeptics compare those who treat such evidence as proof to "people who discover an empty bank account and claim from its very emptiness that it once contained millions of dollars," Mann writes.

Unfortunately, no chronicles of Columbus-era pandemics have surfaced, either. But tales of several later pandemics are arresting: One huge 18th century smallpox epidemic started in modern-day Mexico City and spread south like a chain of firecrackers through Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador, and north along the Santa Fe Trail into the American Southwest, all within four years. And the occasional Indian lore and drawings cited here certainly chronicle the tragedies of lost parents, children and communities. One Lakota Indian census in the winter of 1794 was memorialized with the stark image of a pox-scarred man, alone in his teepee, shooting himself.

Mann naturally centers his investigation on findings in anthropology and archaeology, but one also wishes for a bigger interpretive boost from economics, sociology and, especially, epidemiology. Could such a mass extermination over two continents have really happened? The author interviews several medical researchers and finds that it could. But again the evidence feels a tad slim: Even the Black Death, a century earlier, killed only about a third, not 95 percent, of the European population. And we hear almost nothing from oral histories of the extant indigenous peoples -- the Guajiro of Colombia and Venezuela, the Yanomami in the Amazon, the Inca's descendants in Bolivia and Peru, the Maya of Mexico and Guatemala, or the North American Indians, and so wonder whether they could shed light upon these questions.

But Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one our young children could end up studying in their textbooks when they reach junior high.

Mary D'Ambrosio, a former Associated Press correspondent in Latin America, teaches journalism at New York University.

This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle