Charles C. Mann’s thesis here is that when the Europeans arrived in the Americas they did not find a pristine wilderness, but rather a landscape that had been completely modified by its human inhabitants. Mann goes about proving this with evidence about indigenous cultures from New England to the Andes and the Amazon, all of it interesting, most of it fascinating.
For example, the natives of the Amazon, unable to grow much in the way of corn like the rest of the Americas due to the poor soil, instead planted trees, creating a forest full of fruit most of which eco-tourists can still find there. The Amazonians also altered the soil by mixing it with charcoal creating fertile farmland with a yeild 880% greater than that of surrounding soil. This made it possible to build cities along the banks of the Amazon with populations up to 100,000 people.
In New England and in the rest of what became the eastern United States, the native people modified the landscape through fire, burning away the underbrush to create huge meadows good for both planting and for hunting. This also cleared the forest so well that when settlers first arrived in Georgia they could ride through them with ease. All of this was lost to history when the diseases European explorers brought with them ravaged the native population. When the settlers arrived, they often found a countryside largely devoid of people, and assumed that the land was natural, not modified.
Mann’s prose is higly readable. When there is drama in the history there is drama in his account of it. He lays out his case well, and provides enough evidence to convince the reader that his claims are at least possible. He states in the closing chapters that what he’s telling us is not really new revelations; most of the information has been around for 50 years or more, but that it’s new to the general public. It should be in the history books. It’s much more interesting than what is there, and certainly much more vital.
This review first ran on my previous blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. in 2008. I thought it would make a good counterpoint to the Dampier book. This is one of my very early reviews, from back before I knew there were other book blogs out there. You can see that I really had not idea what I was doing as far as writing a review goes. I just really liked the book and wanted other people to know about it.
I am in the process of migrating my old reviews to James Read Books, at least the reviews I would like to keep. There are over 1500 post still at Ready When You Are, C.B. so this will take some time.