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Author explains Native American life prior to 1492

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Keck Award-winning author and Science journalist Charles C. Mann spoke to a filled room at DePauw University's Pulliam Center Tuesday evening.

Mann's acclaimed book "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," gives a new perspective to Native American life and the landscape of America prior to 1492 and contact with Europeans.

Mann spoke to DePauw students, faculty and community members about why historians had the story wrong for such a long time.

"Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought," Mann told the audience. "This place wasn't empty. There were people here."

"When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness. This picture of Indian life is wrong in almost every aspect," he divulges in his book.

"Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind," claims Mann.

The vast new world that Columbus found in 1492 was thought to be a thinly peopled paradise of plants, animals and Native Americans waiting for civilization.

"The reality about the world before Columbus is very different--two continents teeming with languages, cultures and mighty cities as big, as rich as and even more populous than the capitals of Europe," he stated.

Estimates are between 40-60 million Native Americans were here.

"And that estimate is rising. I won't be surprised to see it hit 80 million," said Mann.

The author went on to explain the reason the numbers of natives fell off and it has to do with the number of diseases brought over from other continents to the Americas.

He showed a slide that had 16 diseases listed on the European continent and only one which may have been present in the Americas.

This also relates to the number of domesticated animals that Europeans had.

He showed slides demonstrating the differences between the animals living in European homes compared to few if any living with Native Americans.

"Humanized landscapes" is the term used to describe the areas where people lived," he explained.

Mann showed slide after slide that demonstrated how landscapes showed that not only were there human inhabitants where no one thought they would be, but large groups of people in major areas with canals, buildings, waterways and villages containing hundreds, even thousands of people.

And, all long before Columbus arrived in 1492.

He showed an acheological site called Cahokia outside St. Louis which has been there since 1000 AD. The area had a population estimated near 100,000 people. By 1400 it was empty.

Another area in New England called Pocumtuck showed evidence of cornfields prior to Columbus' arrival.

"Much of New England had cornfields. When Columbus arrived he was seeing areas that had been cleared and grown back. It was not the pristine, untouched forest they thought," said Mann.

Corn, which originated in Southern Mexico before Christ was born, took 1,000 years to get to the Mississippi Valley and another 1,000 years to get to New England.

"It was the first genetically engineered food," added Mann.

Mann's book won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Keck Award for the best book of the year as well as the National Academies 2006 Communication Award.

Mann is a correspondent for Science and Atlantic Monthly, and has co-written four previous books: "The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics" (1986), "The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition" (1991), "Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species" (1995), and "@ Large: The Strange Case of the Internet's Biggest Invasion" (1998).

A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has also won awards from the American Bar Association, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation (a 2006 Literary Fellowship).

He has also written for CD-ROMS, HBO and the television show "Law and Order. Mann is currently working on a companion volume to 1491; an early excerpt appeared in National Geographic in May 2007.

More information about Mann and his book can be found on his Web site www.charlesmann.org

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