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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Early Americans were highly civilized, author says

By Dan Treasure

In an average textbook, settlers from Europe are depicted as arriving in a largely deserted and barely civilized North America. Not so, said professor and author Charles Mann, who spoke about his new book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus on Monday.

Mann said that contrary to popular belief, indigenous Americans were living in highly populated, complex civilized societies when Europeans arrived. Cities like Tenochtitlan and Teotihuacan in Central America had populations of 200,000 citizens or more.

In his presentation in the Union Saltair Room, Mann pointed out that before European settlers arrived, there was an estimated 40 million to 60 million people living throughout North and South America. However, the number of people might have seemed small to Europeans because the population in America had decreased by the time they arrived.

“The greatest human catastrophe was between 1500 and 1650 (A.D.) when 90 percent of everything was wiped out,” Mann said, adding that the native American population decreased because of Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox-which caused an estimated 45 million deaths. So instead of American colonists showing up to an “empty” America, Mann said they showed up to an “emptied” America.

Before they arrived, the Amazon has been revealed as one of the largest concentrations of these ancient people, he said. A fifth of the Amazon was grasslands, allowing ancient Americans to build earthen mounds to stay dry in the rainy season.

Mann said field research from the last century has shown that pre-Columbus inhabitants possessed intricate irrigation systems, terra-forming projects and settlements as large as modern-day Salt Lake City. To date, there are more than 10,000 of these mounds that are interconnected by berms for the wet season and canals for the dry season.

Mann said that logically, if there was such a large population present at the time, there must have been an equally large level of organization to support them, something common today.

Images of the modern-day Amazon river basin used by organizations such as Green Peace inaccurately portray the forest as pristine and having never been “tainted” by man, Mann said. In reality, Mann said, ancient Americans were one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the history of the world, and their vanishing from the Americas was likely the cause of the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Mann said early Americans used a char-and-burn technique that transformed forests into fertile farm land. By artificially planting charcoal in the ground, fires create habitats for microorganisms to live, essentially making infertile ground fertile. Maps from Mann’s book showed that besides Canada, 75 percent of land in the Americas was artificially shaped and controlled by the indigenous Americans with fire.

“Landscape is artificial and has been for thousands of years,” Mann said. “There are very few areas that are natural wilderness.”

Steve Roens, associate dean for undergraduate studies, said the presentation was fascinating.

“The audience…was thoroughly engaged by his vivid descriptions based on new theories of the pre-Columbian Americas supporting millions of people who transformed the environment through the use of fire and other means, but who were then virtually wiped out by diseases brought by European explorers and those who came later,” Roens said. “His talk both entertained and informed and certainly gave those of us in the audience a lot to think about.”

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