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Pre-Columbian North America

For many Americans, the tradi-tional imagery of pre-Columbian North America is one of small or medium sized native tribes living in vast, primeval forests or on rolling plains largely untouched by human hands. The first part of this evocative description is relatively accurate, since settlers moving West often traveled through large swaths of unoccupied land, encountering native tribes only occasionally, if at all.

However, evidence indicates the pre-Columbian population of North America was much larger and more advanced than popular myth has taught. As a result, the land in many regions was far from pristine. Native tribes engaged in large-scale agricul-ture, built towns, roads, and temples, and conducted far-ranging commerce. Vast areas of forest were regularly burned to create, and maintain, fields and prairies for agricultural use. Natural resources were managed in order to improve the avail-ability of various foods. Thriving civilizations were found across the continent. Yet, by the time settlers arrived in significant numbers, many tribes had van-ished, or were vastly reduced in number and power, through disease and warfare. Native settlements and agricultural efforts had largely vanished over centuries of neglect.

No accurate count is possible due to a dearth of written records, but estimates of pre-Columbian native populations in the Americas range between 20 and 100 million, with a "consensus estimate" of between 40 and 80 million. Geographer William Denevan has suggested a total of 53.9 million, with a breakdown of "3.8 million for North America, 17.2 million for Mexico, 5.6 million for Central America, 3.0 million for the Caribbean, 15.7 million for the Andes, and 8.6 million for lowland South America". He estimates only 5.6 million remained by 1650.

An absence of major settle-ments and large tribes convinced many 19th century American scholars and settlers that the continent had been largely empty prj.or to the arrival of European explorers. They also seem to have been unaware of first-person accounts written by early explorers such as Hernando De Soto, as well as letters and diaries kept by early colonists who described the size and complexity of the native societies they encountered.

The decimation of native tribes by disease, and the resulting impression that North America was home only to small, primitive settlements helped foster the "manifest destiny" belief that the newly formed American nation was destined to conquer and civilize a largely "empty" continent. 19th century historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the latter, in conjunction with the related myth of the frontier as a steadily westward-moving line between civilization and primitive life. Later it was adopted into public school history texts and taught to generations of students. Vestiges of these teachings persist to this day.

Many factors contributed to the destruction of native civilizations. Large numbers in Central and South America were certainly killed as the result of warfare. Spanish conquistadores such as Hernan Cortes took advantage of tribal squabbles, enlisting disaffected groups as allies against others. In the Caribbean, Columbus and his successors enslaved whole tribes, forcing them to work in gold mines until they died of exhaustion, malnutrition, or disease. New England colonists formed alliances with certain tribes, who were often appalled when they discovered Europeans exterminated enemies wholesale rather than simply forcing them to submit or redress a grievance.

However, losses through vio-lent conflict pale in comparison with those experienced as the result of disease and famine. European colonists brought Old World diseases to the Americas. Because they had lived in genetic isolation for millennia, native Americans had no inherited resistance to illnesses like smallpox, chicken pox, and influenza. Once introduced, these spread through native towns and villages like wildfire, often killing well over 90 per cent of the population.

Europeans, on the other hand, had vast experience with these diseases. They were first transmitted to humans in the Old World as the result of domesticating pigs, horses, sheep and cattle. Constant movement and trade across Europe, Asia, and Africa ensured nearly universal exposure. Any European who crossed the Atlantic during the 16th century "had battled such illnesses as smallpox and measles during childhood and emerged fully immune".

According to first person accounts, the lands visited by explorers and early settlers were often densely populated. Sixteenth century priest Bartolome de las Casas noted that the Indies were "full of peopie, like a hive of bees, so that it seems as though God had placed all, or the greater part of the human race in these countries". Yet according to James Loewen, "fewer than 200 full-blooded Haitian Indians were alive in 1542. By 1555, they were all gone". Many died from malnutrition and overwork, while even more perished from smallpox or other diseases.

This is supported by other accounts. In 1631, New England clergyman Increase Mather wrote that a conflict between natives and white settlers was resolved by disease. "God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians". As a result", whole towns of them were swept away, in some of them not so much as one Soul escaping the Destruction".

The same effect was seen in Central and South America. Cortes' chronicler Bernal Diaz wrote of the scene when the Spaniards finally entered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which apparently fell due to disease rather than superior Spanish weapons. "I solemnly swear that all the houses and stockades in the lake were full of heads and corpses.... We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians.... Indeed, the stench was so bad that no one could endure it".

Another incident shows how deadly Old World diseases were to native tribes, and supports the 90 per cent fatality rate. William Bradford noted that when Dutch traders in Connecticut traveled to a native village to trade, "their enterprise failed, for it pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial".

Worst of all, these disease out-breaks were not confined to areas such as New England and Virginia, where the earliest European settlers created colonies. Again we have no written evidence, but it appears disease outbreaks spread through native populations, perhaps even from coast to coast. As one tribe suffered losses, the few survivors fled and were adopted by other tribes. These survivors probably brought sickness with them, infecting their adopted community with the same contagion. The consequences are obvious.

Direct contact between humans was not the only method by which disease spread. Explorer Hernando De Soto brought livestock - including pigs, which carry anthrax, brucellosis, tuberculosis, and other illnesses - on his expedition through the North American hinterland. He landed in Florida in 1539 with 200 horses, 600 soldiers and 300 pigs. While marching through what is now Arkansas, "through thickly settled land - 'very well peopled with large towns', one of his men later recalled, 'two or three of which were to be seen from one town'. Eventually the Spaniards approached a cluster of small cities, each protected by earthen walls, sizeable moats, and deadeye archers".

Escaped pigs from De Soto's expedition would have infected local deer and other animals with a variety of illnesses, all of which could be passed to humans. These animals were almost certainly the ancestors of "razorbacks" that now inhabit .Arkansas, since pigs were not present in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Over a century later, the same area was visited by French explorer La Salle. His men passed "through the area where Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was deserted - La Salle didn't see an Indian village for 200 miles". According to one researcher, "about fifty settlements existed in this strip of the Mississippi when Soto showed up [...]. By La Salle's time the number had shrunk to perhaps ten".

But if the pre-Columbian native population was so large, why did North America appear as pristine forest to new settlers? The simple answer is that, at least in the case of colonists landed from the Mayflower in 1620, it did not. Areas along the coast had been long cleared and settled by local tribes, most of whom perished during a plague, probably small-pox, that started as the result of interaction with European fisher-men in 1617.

One colonist wrote in 1622 that "in this bay where we live, in former time hath lived about two thousand Indians". Settlers found abandoned villages, immense planted fields of corn, and stored foods that helped them gain a foothold in the area. An eyewit-ness to the plague, one Robert Cushman, wrote that "only the twentieth person is scarce left alive". The Plymouth colonists found prepared, cultivated lands on which to settle. Those who cleared them had vanished - a fact the colonists attributed to Divine intervention on their behalf.

As they spread further West, settlers moved onto lands that looked as if they'd never been set-tled. Nearly all evidence of human habitation had vanished following the decimation of native tribes by disease. If we accept that De Soto and others introduced Old World diseases in the 1500s, then more than 200 years had passed by the time settlers arrived in areas such as Arkansas. Wooden towns had been reclaimed by nature. Fields had reverted to forest.

Despite this, many openings in the canopy forest were noted. These appear to have been the result of repeated burnings and clearings by native tribes. For instance, one author suggested that "the virgin forest seemed to many explorers not much different from the parks and champion fields they had known in Old England". In other words, native tribes managed forests in order to make them more productive, thus producing an environment reminiscent of that found in well-cultivated Europe.

Some native tribes practiced slash-and-burn (also called "swid-den" or "fire-fallow") horticulture. For example, the Mohawks in what is now the state of New York lived in compact, palisade-enclosed villages of perhaps 200 inhabitants. The entire village would relocate every decade or two, probably when game grew scarce and it became difficult to raise sufficient crops in soils drained of nutrients as the result of repeated crop plantings. The village simply moved to a new, unspoiled location and started over.

Others were better versed in horticultural methods. As one author noted, "American Indians pruned, thinned, weeded, sowed, tilled, and transplanted wild plants long before the introduction of agriculture. They knew they could promote plant growth this way and increase the production of fruits and nuts".

One example of the actual den-sity of some pre-Columbian native populations is Cahokia, now located in the state of Illinois. This is a 2,200 acre site that includes some 100 man-made mounds. By most recent estimates, it reached a population of 40,000 prior to its abandonment in the 1500s. The reason for its decline is unknown, but over-hunting and deforestation may have played a role. We should also note that Tenochtitlan, prior to its destruction at the hand of Cortes, was a teeming, clean (unlike European cities of the time), art-filled metropolis of over 100,000 inhabitants. It is not unreasonable to expect that towns of similar size, if not complexity, also existed in North America.

The question of pre-Columbian influence over the North American landscape is by no means settled. It may never be due to a lack of documentary evidence. Researchers are forced to rely on physical studies of soil carbon and forest composition, rather than written documents. This evidence doesn't give us the whole story, but suggests tribes altered the landscape significantly through burning, clearing and other practices.

One biologist who reviewed the physical evidence has stated that prairies in the East "would have mostly disappeared if it had not been for the nearly annual burning of these grasslands by the North American Indians". Others have conducted soil studies that show the presence of deep layers of carbon - much more than one would expect from a single fire caused by a lightning strike.

We will probably never know the exact size and composition of pre-Columbian civilizations, or how the exchange of diseases affected specific groups. The debate ranges even today, with some researchers claiming massive population densities while others claim far lower figures are accu-rate. However, we know enough about these events to be certain North America was anything but a pristine, empty continent when Columbus made landfall.

Richard E. Joltes. Myth of the Empty Continent. History Magazine. August/September 2011.


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