For some scholars of human history in Amazonia, the geoglyphs in the Brazilian state of Acre and other archaeological sites suggest that the forests of the western Amazon, previously considered uninhabitable for sophisticated societies partly because of the quality of their soils, may not have been as “Edenic” as some environmentalists contend.
Instead of being pristine forests, barely inhabited by people, parts of the Amazon may have been home for centuries to large populations numbering well into the thousands and living in dozens of towns connected by road networks, explains the American writer Charles C. Mann. In fact, according to Mr. Mann, the British explorer Percy Fawcett vanished on his 1925 quest to find the lost “City of Z” in the Xingu, one area with such urban settlements.
In addition to parts of the Amazon being “much more thickly populated than previously thought,” Mr. Mann, the author of “1491,” a groundbreaking book about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, said, “these people purposefully modified their environment in long-lasting ways.”
“If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it,” said William Woods, a geographer at the University of Kansas who is part of a team studying the Acre geoglyphs.
“I know that this will not sit well with ardent environmentalists,” Mr. Woods said, “but what else can one say?”
Several readers have expressed skepticism of the high mortality numbers Charles C. Mann reports in his two books in relation to the Columbian Exchange. In case you are not aware, the thesis that Mann outlines is that the primary necessary condition whereby Europeans managed to eliminate indigenous populations from much of the New World was that they brought with them diseases which the native people did not have an immunity to. This model often argues that mortality rates were on the order of 90 percent. Such a scenario has broad plausibility because the situation in the New World has an inverse counterpoint: Africa. Before quinine the European dominion on the continent was limited to outposts and fringes (e.g., the Cape region of South Africa, which was free of many of the diseases deadly to Europeans). Overall I find Mann’s argument qualitatively reasonable, even if one may qualify it on the margins quantitatively. But I stumbled upon more evidence recently: it still holds for those Amerindians which have not been exposed to Eurasian diseases. From a National Geographic story, Into the Amazon:
Charles C. Mann is the author of several books, including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Much of his work has been involved in publicizing the ecological factors which shape the course of human history. You can read a lengthy review of 1493 over at Chad Orzel’s blog. Needless to say, I highly recommend it (I read it on the Kindle edition, and it was interesting to see which passages other people had highlighted).
For obvious reasons I don’t usually post about material I haven’t read, but Tyler Cowen points me to the fact that Charles C. Mann has a new book coming out this summer. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend his previous book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I think it is correct that Mann probably skewed his narrative a bit too much to the revisionist side, but it is a genuinely revelatory work.* I was aware of the broad outlines already, so it wasn’t surprising, but he marshals the data in a fascinating and engaging manner. The new book is apparently a sequel of sorts, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Cowen says “I am spellbound reading it, it will be one of the best books of this year, and, although I know this area somewhat, I am learning fascinating information on literally every page.” I suspect that what occurred in the New World after 1492 is actually an amplified version of what occurred across much of the Old World over the past 10,000 years, with the rise of massive agglomerations of humanity due to agriculture.
In other news, malnourished children apparently had mortality rates of 40% due to measles!.
* There is a lot of politics you have to navigate on this topic, from all directions.