Rediscovering America

Of all the stories people tell, the least grounded in fact tend to be those about origins. Only a few decades ago, Christopher Columbus was the discoverer of America and a hero of the second-grade classroom. In recent years, however, Americans have moved toward a more brutally realistic view of their nation's beginnings. Now teachers are more likely to depict the slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers, and to paint Columbus as a ruthless tyrant who put peaceful, nature-loving natives in chains.

Despite this coming-to-terms, Americans have clung to certain founding myths. One is the notion that Europeans came to dominate the continent because they possessed superior technology and culture. Another is the idea that Native Americans coexisted side by side with natural wilderness without imposing on it. In "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" ( 465 pages. Knopf ), author Charles Mann demolishes both of these myths.

Mann pulls together in a thorough and readable volume years of scholarly work--little of which, to the author's surprise, has made its way into the popular sensibility. As a child, Mann (now 50) was told the story of early English settlers struggling to survive in the New World. A friendly Indian named Tisquantum teaches these Pilgrims how to plant maize and live on the edge of the wilderness. The story may be true enough, but Mann paints a more complex picture of mutual distrust. When a rogue English officer kidnaps a handful of natives, Tisquantum among them, tribal leaders declare themselves permanently hostile to all European settlers.

The Europeans might have been driven from the shores of Massachusetts forever, or at least faced the prospect of a costly war, had their diseases--smallpox and hepatitis, among others--not acted quickly to vanquish the natives. Technology, says Mann, wasn't the decisive factor. Contrary to popular wisdom, natives lost their fear of guns when they realized how hard they were to aim. Bows and arrows, by contrast, proved more accurate and had a longer range. The climactic battle never occurred. When Tisquantum returned to Massachusetts a few years later, he found that his tribe had been wiped out by disease.

Technology and social organization, Mann argues convincingly, were, if anything, more advanced in the Americas than in Europe. In 1491, the Incas ruled "the greatest empire on earth," in part by pulling off a unique feat of adaptation: they exploited the rugged terrain of the Andes by fashioning an economy based on trade among the different ecosystems--fish from the coast, maize from the foothills, llama jerky from the Andes.

The Native Americans were far more populous than previously thought, say scientists. Feeding themselves would have required cultivation of nature on a massive scale. The New World wasn't wild; it was a vast garden, shaped by human hands. Why isn't this taught in American schools? Perhaps because it isn't a convenient object lesson in conservation, Mann says. Some myths die harder than others.

Join the Discussion