JEFFREY BROWN: What were the Americas like when Columbus first arrived in 1492? A provocative new book pulls together research from the last several decades and suggested much of what we think we know about that history is wrong. The book is "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus." Its author is Charles Mann, a science writer for Science Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. Welcome to you.
CHARLES MANN: Glad to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, is this about rewriting history? Define it for us.
CHARLES MANN: Well, basically when I went to high school, like most Americans, I learned that Indians walked across the Bering Straits 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most par in small scattered bands and that when Columbus landed the -- it had so little impact on the environment that the whole hemisphere was for all intents and purposes a vast wilderness.
And one way to summarize what the new research is saying is that all of these are wrong. Indians were here far longer than previously believed, they're in much, much greater numbers than previously believed, and they had far more environmental impact than previously believed.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you also write that not only did you learn this in high school, which was around when I was in high school, but your son did too.
CHARLES MANN: Right, and that was part of the impetus for writing the book, because at that point I had been reporting on this for Science and the Atlantic Monthly from time to time, and I knew that this was now decades out of date. And I sort of thought, well, somebody should write a book.
JEFFREY BROWN: So the portrait of the Americas before Columbus came, a more sophisticated, I think you used the word busy place.
CHARLES MANN: Yes. A crowded place with lots and lots of people, and the population estimates when I was going to school were that the entire population of the Americas north of the Rio Grande was something on the order of 900,000 people and then there were a few million more people south of the Rio Grande.
And now a conservative estimate would be twenty to forty million, and I've seen estimates of up to 200 million. So if you do this kind of crude split the difference kind of thing, you end up with eighty to one hundred million, which was roughly the population of Europe at the time.
JEFFREY BROWN: And living in some very large cities?
CHARLES MANN: Yes. For instance, the capital of the Aztec empire was a city of a quarter million which in the 16th Century is a big, big place; it was bigger than any of the cities in Spain, for example, that the Conquistadors came from.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the technology much greater, or more sophisticated than we ever thought about.
CHARLES MANN: Yeah. There was a vastly different kind of technology. There are many examples of this, probably my favorite is that when the Spanish, when the Spaniards came to Peru, they had suspension bridges, these things are held up by fabric, and they wrote, many of them wrote back to their superiors in Spain that they had these incredible bridges that had nothing underneath them holding but, but they're still somehow safe to walk across, because those principles weren't know. And there's many, many examples of this kind of thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mention this notion that our idea of the Americas as mostly wilderness is wrong. So this was a place that was worked, covered, what did it actually look like?
CHARLES MANN: Well, imagine if you were going to fly from the Americas from say Boston all the way down to what you would have seen along the coast were almost solidly lined with agricultural villages, some quite large -- fields going many miles into the interior, and then after that the forest, which was shaped and managed by burning to keep the underbrush down and to make the new growth good for -- to attract game animals. And that was pretty much all the way through the whole East Coast.
Then in the Southeast you had thousands -- at least 10,000 probably many more -- of these sort of mound cities, centered around large earthen mounds. Then you went to Central Mexico, which was at the time Columbus landed probably the most populace place on Earth, with this enormous, rapidly expanding Aztec empire, as it's called; go then down to South America and you had the Andes, where you had the Inca state, which is an enormous place; it was probably the largest state in the world at the time; it extended from a distance roughly equivalent from Stockholm to Cairo; and then the Amazon, which you think of it as a giant primeval forest was in fact home to very large states up and down this enormous river.
JEFFREY BROWN: So to the enormous question then of what happened to the land, what happened to the people, you talk about an epidemic that you call the worst demographic disaster in history.
CHARLES MANN: Well, it's actually a series of epidemics. What happened was that by historical quirk, there are hardly any large domestic land mammals in the Americas, and so the Indians didn't have many domesticated animals. They had dogs and llamas up in the Andes, and when people live in close proximity to animals, the way the Europeans did with their farm animals, animal diseases can what's called jump the species barrier and become human diseases.
And thus you have bovine rinderpest becoming measles; you have smallpox developing from horse pox or camel pox, depending which geneticist you talk to, bird flu, of course, becoming human flu.
And none of this took place in the Americas, and lots of it took place in Europe, so Europeans came over to the Americas and they brought inadvertently all these diseases with them to populations that not only didn't have diseases of their own, but also basically didn't have any of those kind of epidemic diseases and so didn't have any of the kind of cultural defenses against -- they didn't know about quarantine because if you don't ever have a plague, you don't need to know about quarantine.
And so these diseases when they came just swept through the Americas.
JEFFREY BROWN: And decimated a huge proportion of the population.
CHARLES MANN: Right. It was just a horrendous catastrophe, like nothing before or after it. Half of the world's population died.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you're synthesizing here the work of scientists over the last decade -
CHARLES MANN: Yes, and I'm being a reporter, I'm trying to tell you this is what from doing the reporting I believe to be the consensus view of the current generation of archeological, anthropological, geographical and so on of scientists.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But much of it, we should say, remains controversial.
CHARLES MANN: Absolutely. This is the kind of field that there's always arguments about what it.
What I would say is not controversial, I don't think anybody disbelieves that there were epidemics; the question would be whether they killed 75 percent of the population, 99 percent of the population.
JEFFREY BROWN: And exactly what the population was at the time?
CHARLES MANN: Yes, exactly. The idea that the Americas were a populace place, they were full of these busy diverse cultures, I don't think anybody argues with that; it's just the exact dimensions of the increase that we're talking about, and the fact that these horrible epidemics happened, again, I don't think this is controversial; this is, you know, how horrible is the question, rather than that they existed.
JEFFREY BROWN: So Columbus Day 2005, it's 513 years since Columbus arrived. Do you see some of this information starting to get down into the high school textbooks that sort of caused you to write this in the first place?
CHARLES MANN: Not yet. But I have to say that while I've been, you know, touring for this book and trying to promote it, a number of high school teachers have come to me and said this is really interesting, I want to teach this to my classes, you know, what materials can you give me, and so forth, so I think slowly this is disseminating, maybe my grandkids will actually do better with this than my children did.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Charles Mann; the book is "1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus." Thanks a lot.