Author Charles C. Mann researched the work of archaeologists and anthropologists of the past 30 years and presents the results in this book which will turn most Americans’ understanding of Native American life before the arrival of Columbus on its head. Many scientists are now persuaded the native population of the Americas in 1491 was likely higher than that of Europe and the population of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan greater than any contemporary European city. Smallpox is believed to have caused a tremendous population crash between the time the first explorers wrote about the numerous settlements of Indians along the Eastern coast of North America and the time Europeans arrived in larger numbers to build their own settlements, arriving on an apparently almost empty continent. There is convincing evidence of large-scale landscape management by the Indians in both North and South America including planting of trees, controlled burning of undergrowth and the building of soil fertility enabling large populations to exist in relatively small geographic areas. Mann describes the individual freedom enjoyed by the Indians of the Five Nations, the important responsibilities accorded to the women as heads of the clans and the possible legacy and certainly the influence of the Indian way of life on the framers of our own Constitution. After reflecting on landscape, wilderness, and the ecological impact of humans on our planet, Mann writes “If there is a lesson it is that to think like the original inhabitants of these lands we should not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future.”
When treating controversial subjects, Mann explains the various points of view of the archaeologists fairly, leaving the reader free to choose the most persuasive argument. Charles Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly and has won several awards from such organizations as the American Bar Association and the American Institute of Physics.
Reviewed by mc, 10/05. Other reviews by mc.