‘1491’ looks deeper into early Indian life

   What was the New World like before Columbus? Science writer Charles Mann takes on this controversial subject in his book, “1491,” and attempts to revise previous depictions of Indian life in the Americas.
  The textbooks I read in my schooldays painted a picture of two continents with a sparse population and limited civilization. Yes, the Incas, Aztecs and Mayas built pyramids and cities, grew corn and other crops and developed sophisticated calendars, but lagged behind Europe because they lacked steel and failed to invent the wheel. North America was home to small bands of Indians, many of whom were nomadic and had a primitive lifestyle.
  Mann fearlessly challenges this image of the Americas in this work written three years ago and now out in a paperback edition. He relates accounts from early Spanish observers and presents other evidence to show that the Indian civilizations of central Mexico may have had as many as 25 million people and the estimates of other Indian populations were far bigger than previously believed. Mann says that smallpox epidemics and other diseases may have wiped out more than 90 percent of the Indians. The Indians had no immunity to smallpox and in general had vulnerable immune systems because they had fewer dangerous microbes to deal with than their Old World counterparts.
  It wasn’t just steel swords and horses that gave the Spaniards mastery over the Indians, Mann says. The Spanish and their thousands of Indian allies swept away civilizations depopulated and demoralized by disease.
  The Indians developed more than 50 varieties of maize (corn), the cereal that sustained their civilizations. Maize, unlike wheat and rice, was developed from a plant that had no food value. It is now a staple worldwide. The Indians used sophisticated agricultural techniques to grow the bountiful harvests needed by highly populated cities. Their technological innovations of Indian societies have also been underrated, Mann says.
  The city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico city) had spectacular boulevards, aqueducts and was much farther advanced than any city in Europe, according to Mann. The city was the capital of the “Triple Alliance,” a powerful Indian confederation, which we now mistakenly call the Aztecs.
  In North America, Indians burned off areas of the wilderness and planted useful trees and other crops to alter their environment. Buffalo herds, elk and other game animals were actually smaller in number when Europeans first arrived because the Indians kept them in check, Mann claims. The animals increased when epidemics depleted the native population.
  The Indians of what is now the United States’ Southeast had large settlements which were devastated by Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto. Mann blames De Soto’s insane policy of slaughtering Indians and the disease-bearing pigs he brought with him to feed his men for the disaster, which emptied the land of most of its inhabitants.
  Mann, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and Science magazines, will have his conclusions debated by historians and scientists for a long time. Perhaps, he overstates his case, but the evidence he presents should be seriously considered.

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