One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the earth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.
Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the largest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.
Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Tenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?
One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history.
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.
What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Aztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.