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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"1491": Discovering what Americas were like before Columbus

If the Native-American graveyard discovered at Port Angeles is evidence of a deadly epidemic, as archaeologists now suspect, it would be one...

Special to The Seattle Times

"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus"
by Charles C. Mann
Knopf, 465 pp., $30

If the Native-American graveyard discovered at Port Angeles is evidence of a deadly epidemic, as archaeologists now suspect, it would be one of many. According to Charles Mann's "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," epidemics decimated the Indians of North and South America far more thoroughly than previously thought.

When the white pioneers moved west, they saw a land, thick with bison, deer and elk, and thin with humans. The emptiness, Mann writes, was a consequence of the smallpox virus.

In 1539, Hernando de Soto began a four-year trek through the American South, going from present-day Florida to Tennessee to Texas. He reported a land thick with Indians who farmed corn. In the 1600s, much of the same area was visited by the French explorer La Salle, who reported vast herds of bison but almost no people. The land had been ethnically cleansed — by smallpox.

Few people and many deer are what Francis Drake saw in California in the late 1500s. European diseases, says Mann, had arrived before most Europeans.

Mann is a science writer for Science and The Atlantic Monthly. His book is a popularization of much of the anthropology of the past 35 years. Part of it is science travelogue: He begins his book by visiting large man-made mounds in northeastern Bolivia. He travels to Incan digs in Peru and Chile, Mayan ruins in the jungles of Yucatan, and a man-made hill east of St. Louis called Monks Mound that marked a town of at least 15,000 corn farmers. He ends his account at the mouth of the Amazon, where he says there was once an Indian city of as many as 100,000.

This is not ancient-astronaut stuff. It may not be completely true — it will be a miracle if everything believed today is believed 50 years hence — but it is no doubt more accurate than the version today's adults learned in high school.

The book has several main themes. One is that the population of Indians was larger, and their societies more accomplished, than was earlier believed. (Mann mostly calls them "Indian" because in most of the Americas that's what they call themselves. "Native American," he says, is exclusively a U.S. term.)

The Indians surpassed the Europeans in some respects. The Incas' cotton clothes were more comfortable than the Spaniards' woollens and linens. In 1519, when Hernán Cortés' men reached Tenochtitlán — now Mexico City — Mann says they "gawped like yokels" at a city larger and more splendid than Paris.

The Indians met by the Pilgrims bathed regularly and noted that the Pilgrims did not; the Indians also let their kids play, while the Pilgrims put 7-year-olds to work. Not to quarrel with any of these statements, but in his eagerness to correct the idea that the Europeans were superior in all things, the author gives them credit in almost none.

He does this even in the matter of the wheel, which the American civilizations knew for a thousand years and apparently used only for toys. He discounts this by saying that Europe struggled with an inefficient plow for 2,000 years before inventing a better one.

Another theme of "1491" is that it is not true that the Indians lived on the land without touching it. In the Amazon they used "slash and smolder" to clear land around planted trees and build up jungle soil. In much of North America, Indians managed the land with fire. They also pushed back the hordes of bison, deer and passenger pigeons to protect their cornfields. The wilderness seen by John Muir and other 19th-century romantics was actually wilder and more forested than the America of 1491, Mann says.

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Mann does not present his thesis as an argument for unrestrained development. It is an argument, though, for human management of natural lands and against what he calls the "ecological nihilism" of insisting that forests be wholly untouched.

He concludes:

"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."

Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times

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