Keith Hunt - The Americas before Columbus! Restitution of All

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The TRUTH about the Americas before Columbus

A little from the book "1491"

From the book "1491" by Charles Mann


Why did the Maya abandon all their cities?

     "No words are more calculated to strike dismay in the hearts
of Maya archaeologists," the Maya archaeologist David Webster
confessed in 2002. Webster, a researcher at Pennsylvania State
University, admitted that during his "incautious younger years"
he often told fellow airplane passengers that he was flying to
work "at some ancient Maya center. Then, with utter
predictability, [would come] the dreaded question. Nowadays,
older and wiser, I usually mutter something vague about
'business' and then bury my nose in the airline magazine."
One reason Webster avoided the question is its scope. Asking what
happened to the ancient Maya is like asking what happened in the
Cold War-the subject is so big that one hardly knows where to
begin. At the same time, that very sweep is why the Maya collapse
has fascinated archaeologists since the 1840s, when the outside
world first learned of the abandoned cities in Yucatan. Today we
know that the fall was not quite as rapid, dramatic, and
widespread as earlier scholars believed. Nevertheless, according
to Billie Lee Turner, a geographer at Clark University, in
Worcester, Massachusetts, it was unique in world history.
Cultures rise and fall, but there is no other known time when a
large-scale society disintegrated-and was replaced by nothing.
"When the Roman Empire fell apart," he said, "Italy didn't empty
out - no cities, no major societies-for more than a thousand
years. But the Maya heartland did just that." What happened?
In the 1930s, Sylvanus G. Morley of Harvard, probably the most
celebrated Mayanist of his day, espoused what is still the
best-known theory: The Maya collapsed because they overshot the
carrying capac ity of their environment. They exhausted their
resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled
their cities en masse, leaving them as silent warnings of the
perils of ecological hubris.
     When Morley proposed his theory, it was little more than a
hunch. Since then, though, scientific measurements, mainly of
pollen in lake sediments, have shown that the Maya did cut down
much of the region's forest, using the wood for fuel and the land
for agriculture. The loss of tree cover would have caused
large-scale erosion and floods. With their fields disappearing
beneath their feet and a growing population to feed, Maya farmers
were forced to exploit ever more marginal terrain with ever more
intensity. The tottering system was vulnerable to the first good
push, which came in the form of a century-long dry spell that hit
Yucatan between about 800 and 900 A.D. Social disintegration
followed soon thereafter.
     Recounted in numberless articles and books, the Maya
collapse has become an ecological parable for green activists;
along with Pleistocene overkill, it is a favorite cautionary tale
about surpassing the limits of Nature. The Maya "were able to
build a complex society capable of great cultural and
intellectual achievements, but they ended up destroying what they
created," Clive Ponting wrote in his influential Green History of
the World (1991). Following the implications of the Maya fall, he
asked, "Are contemporary societies any better at controlling the
drive toward ever greater use of resources and heavier pressure
on the environment? Is humanity too confident about its ability
to avoid ecological disaster?" The history of these Indians,
Ponting and others have suggested, has much to teach us today.
Curiously, though, environmentalists also describe Native Ameri-
can history as embodying precisely the opposite lesson: how to
live in a spiritual balance with Nature. Bookstore shelves groan
beneath the weight of titles like Sacred Ecology, Guardians of
the Earth, Mother Earth Spirituality, and Indigenous Traditions
and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. So
strongly endorsed is this view of Native Americans that
checklists exist to judge whether books correctly depict their
environmental values. The Native Cultures Authenticity Guideline,
for instance, assesses the portrayal of the "Five Great Values"
shared by all "the major Native cultures" (including, one
assumes, the Maya), one of which is "Getting Along with
Nature"--"respecting the sacred natural harmony of and with
Nature." To be historically accurate, according to the
guidelines, major native cultures must be shown displaying "a
proper reverence for the gift of life."
     Indians as poster children for eco-catastrophe, Indians as
green role models: the two images contradict each other less than
they seem. Both are variants of Holmberg's Mistake, the idea that
Indians were suspended in time, touching nothing and untouched
themselves, like ghostly presences on the landscape. The first
two sections of this book were devoted to two different ways that
researchers have recently repudiated this perspective. I showed
that they have raised their estimates of indigenous populations
in 1492, and their reasons for it; and then why most researchers
now believe that Indian societies have been here longer than had
been imagined, and grew more complex and technologically
accomplished than previously thought. In this section I treat
another facet of Holmberg's Mistake: the idea that native
cultures did not or could not control their environment. The view
that Indians left no footprint on the land is an obvious example.
That they marched heedlessly to tragedy is a subtler one. Both
depict indigenous people as passively accepting whatever is meted
out to them, whether it is the fruits of undisturbed ecosystems
or the punishment for altering them.
     Native Americans' interactions with their environments were
as diverse as Native Americans themselves, but they were always
the product of a specific historical process. Occasionally
researchers can detail that process with some precision, as in
the case of the Maya. More often one can see only the outlines of
history, as in the reconfiguration of the eastern half of the
United States. These two paradigmatic examples are the subjects I
turn to now. In both, Indians worked on a very large scale,
transforming huge swathes of the landscape for their own ends.
Sifting through the evidence, it is apparent that many though not
all Indians were superbly active land managers-they did not live
lightly on the land. And they do have lessons to teach us, but
they are not what are commonly supposed.


     Adriaen van der Donck was a lawyer who in 1641 transplanted
himself to the Hudson River Valley, then part of the Dutch colony
of Nieuw Nederland. He became a kind of prosecutor and bill
collector for the Dutch West India Company, which owned and
operated the colony as a private fiefdom. Whenever possible, van
der Donck ignored his duties and tramped around the forests and
valleys upstate. He spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee,
whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. They were,
he wrote, "all free by nature, and will not bear any domineering
or lording over them."
     When a committee of settlers decided to complain to the
government about the Dutch West India Company's dictatorial
behavior, it asked van der Donck, the only lawyer in New
Amsterdam, to compose a protest letter and travel with it to The
Hague. His letter set down the basic rights that in his view
belonged to everyone on American soil-the first formal call for
liberty in the colonies. It is tempting to speculate that van der
Donck drew inspiration from the attitudes of the Haudenosaunee.
The Dutch government responded to the letter by taking control of
New Amsterdam from the Dutch West India Company and establishing
an independent governing body in Manhattan, thereby setting into
motion the creation of New York City. Angered by their loss of
power, the company directors effectively prevented van der
Donck's return for five years. While languishing in Europe, he
wrote a nostalgic pamphlet extolling the land he had come to
     Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to
"the woods, plains, and meadows," to "thin out and clear the
woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the
ensuing spring." At first the wildfire had scared him, but over
time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly
burning. "Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the
[Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on
both banks," he recalled. With the forest burning to the right
and the left, the colonists' boats passed through a channel of
fire, their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at
a video arcade. "Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all
sides ... a delightful scene to look on from afar."
     Van der Donck believed that North America was only "several
hundred miles" across, and apparently assumed that all its
inhabitants were exactly like the Haudenosaunee. He was wrong
about the first belief, but in a sense correct about the second:
from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Hudson's Bay to the Rio
Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group
shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire.
     Early in the last century, ecologists discovered the
phenomenon of "succession," the more or less well-defined
sequence by which ecosystems fill in open land. A textbook
example occurred after the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens,
in southern Washington State, which inundated more than two
hundred square miles with magma, volcanic ash, and mud. Surviving
plants sprang quickly to life, sometimes resprouting within
weeks. Then colonizing species like lupine appeared, preparing
the ground for the return of the grasses. Fifteen years after the
eruption, the ravaged slopes were dotted with trees and woody
shrubs: red alder, lodgepole pine, willow bush. Here and there
gleamed the waxy red boles of madrone. Forest giants like
hemlock, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce waited in the wings. In
the classic successional course, each suite of plants replaces
its predecessor, until the arrival of the final, "climax"
ecosystem, usually tall forest.
     If ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents
would be covered by climax-stage vegetation: a world of great
trees, dark and silent. Early-succession species would have
vanished. Luckily for these species, succession is often
interrupted-Nature does not move in lockstep. Windstorms,
lightning fires, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and other
natural calamities knock down trees and open up the forest, or
prevent open country from turning into forestland. A few years or
decades of tranquility may see grasses replaced by shrubs and
trees which are in turn flattened by a violent thunderstorm,
permitting the grass to thrive again. After a while, the shrubs
and trees return, only to be wiped out by a flood. And so on.
Different types of disturbance shape different ecosystems: floods
in the Nile, landslides on the steep pitches of the Andes,
hurricanes in the Yucatan Peninsula. For more than ten thousand
years, most North American ecosystems have been dominated by
     In the Greek myth of Prometheus the gift of fire forever
severs humankind from the natural world-the burning torch is the
icon of the constructed and artificial. on the mundane, factual
level, though, this resonant tale is wrong: Nature has always
used fire as a mallet to beat landscapes into other forms.
Prometheus only helped human beings to pick up the handle. "The
earth," wrote the pioneering fire ecologist Edward V Komarek,
"born in fire, baptized by lightning, since before life's
beginning has been and is, a fire planet." Set off by lightning,
wildfires reset the ecological clock, dialing the array of plants
and animals back a few successional stages. Fire benefits plants
that need sunlight, while inhibiting those that love the cool
gloaming of the forest floor; it encourages the animals that need
those plants even as it discourages others; in turn, predator
populations rise and fall. In this way fire regulates ecological
     Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial
landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens.
In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western
mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it-at least
until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast,
Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas
Morton reported in 1637, which they used "to set fire of the
country in all places where they come." The flints ignited
torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows.
Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in
the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in
California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native
Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "by
firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing
animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows,
darts, and other missiles." Not that Indians always used fire for
strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky
Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William
Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then
exploded like Roman candles.

     Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled
ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of
undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators
that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than
the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by
Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope
of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious
groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first Europeans in Ohio
found woodlands that resembled English parks - they could drive
carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode
Island, Giovanni da Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that
the forest "could be penetrated even by a large army." John Smith
claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.
Incredible to imagine today, bison occurred from New York to
Georgia. A creature of the prairie, Bison bison was imported to
the East by Native Americans along a path of indigenous fire, as
they changed enough forest into fallows for it to survive far
outside its original range. When the Haudenosaunee hunted these
animals, the historian William Cronon observed, they were
harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been
instrumental in creating. Few English observers could have
realized this. People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals
lacked the conceptual tools to recognize that the Indians were
practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own.
     Note, though, that these weren't the huge herds of bison
celebrated in the nineteenth-century West. Because Indians liked
to eat the animals, they took care to maximize the area in which
they could be found. But they also hunted a lot of them, so they
were relatively scarce across this range. (If the species had
been plentiful, people wouldn't have had to go to the trouble of
burning the forest to encourage it.)
     Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the
continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious
game farm. Most of Indiana and part of Illinois, for instance,
was prairie or "barrens" when it was first surveyed in 1818-20; a
2009 study of surviving trees from the pre-European era showed
that even in thickly forested areas fires intense enough to scar
trunks occurred, on average, every 2.82 years. Because "lightning
strikes in [this area] are usually accompanied by rain that would
quickly extinguish any lightning fires," researchers from
Southern Illinois University and Principia College wrote in 2010,
"nearly all of these early fires" were likely due to human
activity. Further west, the same burning occurred, but on even
grander scale. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and
Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their
extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant
grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by
the people who arrived there first. "When Lewis and Clark headed
west from [St. Louis]," wrote ethologist Dale Lott, "they were
exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for
Native Americans."
     In 1792 the surveyor Peter Fidler examined the plains of
southern Alberta systematically, the first European to do so.
Riding with several groups of Indians in high fire season, he
spent days on end in a scorched land. "Grass all burnt this day,"
he reported on November 12. "Not a single pine to be seen three
days past." A day later: "All burnt ground this Day." A day
later: "The grass nearly burnt all along this Day except near the
Lake." A month later: "The Grass is now burning [with] very great
     Every fall and spring, and even in the winter when there is
no snow, these large plains either in one place or other is
constantly on fire, & when the Grass happens to be long & the
wind high, the sight is grand & awful, & it drives along with
amazing swiftness.
     Fidler acknowledged that the fires could be "very dangerous"
but understood their purpose. "These fires burning off the old
grass," he observed, "in the ensuing Spring & Summer makes
excellent fine sweet feed for the Horses and Buffalo, etc."
     When Indian societies disintegrated from disease and
mistreatment, forest invaded savanna in Wisconsin, Illinois,
Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Texas hill country. Europeans
forgot what the landscape had looked like before and why. Captain
John Palliser, traveling through the same lands as Fidler six
decades later, lamented the Indians' "disastrous habit of setting
the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worse than useless
reasons." Afterward even the memory of indigenous fire faded. By
the twentieth century biologists were stoutly denying its
existence. The "open, park-like woods" seen by early settlers,
Harvard naturalist Hugh Raup asserted in 1937, were not caused by
fire; they "have been, from time immemorial, characteristic
of vast areas in North America." Raup's summary description of
the idea that they were due to regular, wide-scale Indian
burning? "Inconceivable." "It is at least a fair assumption," a
widely used college forestry textbook remarked in 1973, "that no
habitual or systematic burning was carried out by Indians." In
the western United States, the geographer Thomas R. Vale wrote in
2002, the "modest" Indian population "modified only a tiny
fraction of the total landscape for their everyday living needs."
Vale is in the minority now. Spurred in part by historians like
Cronon, most scientists have changed their minds about Indian
fire. Using clever laboratory techniques, they have convinced
themselves that in most cases the tribal lore and old chronicles
were right all along: Indian embers were sparkling in the
American night for centuries before the Sumerians climbed their
     Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were
living in balance with Nature but they had their thumbs on the
scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American
landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing.
It was a highly successful and stable system, if "stable" is the
appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding
miles of countryside in smoke and ash. And it was a system that
Indians were abandoning in ever-rising numbers at the time when
Europeans came.

The book "1491" by Mann is a block-buster to re-write the history
of the Americas before Columbus came. Those interested in history
or still educating their children, need to obtain this book.

Keith Hunt

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