Sugestão de Leitura: "1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus"

por Charles C. Mann *

Map of the Americas

Imagine an airplane journey in the early eleventh century A.D. that takes off from eastern Bolivia in South America and flies over the rest of the Western Hemisphere. What would be visible from the windows? Only fifty years ago most historians would have predicted two continents of wilderness with scattered bands of people who were working their way toward civilization. This is wrong: new information seriously challenges accounts of the numbers of Indians and the length of time they had been living in the Western Hemisphere when Columbus arrived. We’ll consider one example.
On the border with Brazil there is a nearly flat Bolivian province called the Beni, the size of Illinois and Indiana together. Scattered across the landscape are numberless island-like earthen mounds topped by forests and bridged by raised berms up to three miles long. Each mound is stabilized by broken pottery that is mixed into its earthen construction and rises as much as sixty feet above the flood plain that allows trees to grow that cannot live in water.
Thirty years ago, the understanding was that Indians lived there in isolated groups and had so little impact on their environment that after millennia the continents remained mostly wilderness. Clark Erickson, an archaeologist, says this picture is mistaken in every respect: the landscape of the Beni was constructed by a populous, technologically advanced Indian society more than a thousand years ago. Much of the savannah of the Beni is natural, but there is evidence that the Indians trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grasslands by fashioning fish-corralling fences among the causeways. The grasslands were maintained and expanded by regularly setting fire to large parts of them, which is still done today to maintain the savannah for cattle.
The Siriono are the best known of a number of Native American groups in the Beni today. Between 1940 and 1942 a young doctoral student in anthropology named Allan R. Holmberg lived among them, and published an account in 1950 of his experience in Nomads of the Longbow. Holmberg reported that the Siriono lived with want and hunger and could neither count nor make fire and seemed to practice no religion except for an uncrystallized conception of the universe. He saw them as primitive humankind living in a raw state of nature that for millennia had existed almost without change. Quickly recognized as a classic, the book provided an enduring image of South American Indians to the outside world.
Holmberg was mistaken.
Researchers, in the 1990s, learned that the Siriono were indeed a desperately impoverished people but for different reasons. They had arrived in the Beni as late as the seventeenth century, and their population had been at least three thousand. By the time Holmberg encountered them, less than 150 people had survived the smallpox and influenza that had destroyed their villages in the 1920s. As the epidemics hit them they were also fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region, and the Bolivian government aided the ranchers by hunting down the Siriono. The wandering people that Holmberg had traveled with in the forest were actually the persecuted survivors.
Photo of a child infected with smallpox
Child infected with smallpox
Missionaries and conquistadors brought the idea back to Spain and Europe that Native Americans lived passively with little to no effect on their environment. Over time various forms of this stereotype were embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them.
It was only when new tools and disciplines, such as demography, climatology, carbon-14 dating and ice-core sampling; satellite photography, soil assays, and genetic microsatellite analysis were employed that the idea that the indigenous occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed their environment so little over thousands of years began to look implausible.
And our misunderstanding of Bolivia is but one part of our mistake about what America was like in 1492: After Columbus sailed into the Western Hemisphere and traders and colonists soon followed, a phenomenon called ecological release occurred. Throughout the hemisphere ecosystems faltered, colonists in Jamestown complained about the scourge of rats they had accidentally imported. Tame European clover and blue grass transformed themselves and swept through areas so quickly that the first English colonists in Kentucky found both species waiting for them. And peaches in the southeast that previously had not grown in the wild proliferated so much that eighteenth-century farmers feared the Carolinas would become a wilderness of peach trees!

Map of the world dated 1507
Universalis Cosmographia, the Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507, depicts the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean separating Asia from the Americas

South America was hit especially hard. Spinach and endive, escaping from colonial gardens, grew into impassable, six-foot thickets on the Peruvian coast, and mint took over the valleys higher up in the Andes. In the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, the voyager, Charles Darwin, saw hundreds of square miles choked by feral artichoke and found that peach wood had become the main supply of firewood in Buenos Aires. Some invasions canceled each other out, for example, the plague of endive in Peru may have been checked by a simultaneous plague of rats that overran the land and destroyed crops.

Botanical painting of maize
Illustration depicting both male and female flowers of maize

 Until Columbus, Indians were a keystone species in most of the  hemisphere.  They annually burned undergrowth, cleared and replanted  forests, built canals and raised fields, hunted bison and netted salmon,  and grew maize and manioc. Native Americans had been managing their  environments for thousands of years. By and large, they modified their  landscapes in stable and intelligent ways.
Some areas of maize have been farmed for thousands of years. In Peru, for instance, where irrigated terraces of crops covered huge areas, wholesale transformations were carried out in an exceptional way. All of these efforts required close and continual oversight, but in the sixteenth century, epidemics removed the checks and balances. After 1492 American landscapes were emptied of Native Americans, which deregulated the ecosystems. The forests that the first New England colonists thought were primeval and enduring were actually in the midst of violent change and demographic collapse.
Passenger pigeons
Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, juvenile (left),
male (center), female (right)
In 1823 the artist and naturalist, John Audubon saw a flock of passenger pigeons passing overhead in a single cloud for three whole days, obscuring the light of noon-day as if by an eclipse. In Audubon’s day one out of every four birds was a passenger pigeon. And suddenly, the passenger pigeon vanished with the last bird dying in September 1914. Given that the passenger pigeon was a competitor of the Indians for mast (various nuts) as well as berries, and because crowds of pigeons would eat the food in their fields, it was expected that Indians would hunt them as enthusiastically as they did turkey, deer, and raccoons that also ate from their fields. Judging by the bones in archaeological sites, however, the Indians were enthusiastic hunters of everything except passenger pigeons, which leads archaeologists to think that there were not large numbers of these pigeons before Columbus. The impact of European contact altered the ecological dynamics in such a way that the passenger pigeon increased. The avian throngs that Audubon saw were out-break populations—always a symptom of an extraordinarily disrupted ecological system.
These are but a few examples: at the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly touched by human hands. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the United States, with large areas of the southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousands were visible. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been moved back from the coasts and were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across every ocean-bound stream in the northwest. And almost everywhere there was evidence that the Indians had set fires. South of the Rio Grande, Indians had converted the Mexican basin and Yucatan into artificial environments. Terraces and canals and stony highways lined the western face of the Andes. Raised fields and causeways covered the Beni. Agriculture reached into Argentina and central Chile. Indians had converted perhaps a quarter of the Amazon forest into farms and agricultural forests and changed the once-forested Andes to grass and brush. The Inca, worried about fuel supply, were planting tree farms.
All of this development had implications for animal populations. For example, as settlements grew so did their maize fields. Indians discouraged animals, large and small, from their fields by hunting them until they were scarce around their homes. At the same time, they tried to encourage the larger animals to grow in number further away, where they would be useful. When disease swept Indians from the land, the entire ecological regime they established collapsed.
Map of the de Soto expidition
A proposed route for the de Soto Expedition,
based on Charles M. Hudson map of 1997

In the early sixteenth century, Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the Southeast saw hordes of people, but apparently not bison, or he would have mentioned it. More than a century later the French explorer LaSalle canoed down the Mississippi River. Where de Soto had found prosperous cities, LaSalle encountered solitude without any trace of humans, but he saw bison everywhere, grazing in herds on the great prairies that then bordered the Mississippi. When Indians died, these huge creatures vastly extended their range and numbers. According to scientists, the massive, thundering herds were a pathological symptom, something the land had not seen before and is unlikely to see again.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. Far from destroying a pristine wilderness, Europeans seem to have created it. The newly emptied wilderness was indeed beautiful, but it was a product of demographic calamity.

Map of the La Salle & Cavelier expeditions
Map showing the course of the expeditions of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

* excerto do livro 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). Introdução para ler na íntegra, clicando no link em baixo.

Holmberg’s Mistake
A View from Above 
(Part 1 and 2)
The plane took off in weather that was surprisingly cool for central Bolivia and flew east, toward the Brazilian border. In a few minutes the roads and houses disappeared, and the only traces of human settlement were the cattle scattered over the savanna like sprinkles on ice cream. Then they,too, disappeared. By that time the archaeologists had their cameras out and were clicking away in delight.
Below us lay the Beni, a Bolivian province about the size of Illinois and Indiana put together, and nearly as flat. For almost half the year rain and snowmelt from the mountains to the south and west cover the land with an irregular, slowly moving skin of water that eventually ends up in the province’s northern rivers, which are upper tributaries of the Amazon. The rest of the year the water dries up and the bright green vastness turns into something that resembles a desert. This peculiar, remote, often watery plain was what had drawn the researchers’ attention, and not just because it was one of the few places on earth inhabited by some people who might never have seen Westerners with cameras.
Clark Erickson and William Balée, the archaeologists, sat up front. Erickson, based at the University of Pennsylvania, worked in concert with a Bolivian archaeologist, who that day was elsewhere, freeing up a seat in the plane for me. Balée, of Tulane, is actually an anthropologist, but as scientists have come to appreciate the ways in which past and present inform each other, the distinction between anthropologists and archaeologists has blurred. The two men differ in build, temperament, and scholarly proclivity, but they pressed their faces to the windows with identical enthusiasm.
Scattered across the landscape below were countless islands of forest, many of them almost-perfect circles—heaps of green in a sea of yellow grass. Each island rose as much as sixty feet above the floodplain, allowing trees to grow that otherwise could not endure the water. The forests were bridged by raised berms, as straight as a rifle shot and up to three miles long. It is Erickson’s belief that this entire landscape—thirty thousand square miles or more of forest islands and mounds linked by causeways—was constructed by a technologically advanced, populous society more than a thousand years ago. Balée, newer to the Beni, leaned toward this view but was not yet ready to commit himself.
Erickson and Balée belong to a cohort of scholars that in recent years has radically challenged conventional notions of what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about thirteen thousand 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 the continents remained mostly wilderness. Schools still impart the same ideas today. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that they regard this picture of Indian life as wrong in almost every aspect. 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 marked by humankind.
Given the charged relations between white societies and native peoples, inquiry into Indian culture and history is inevitably contentious. But the recent scholarship is especially controversial. To begin with, some researchers—many but not all from an older generation—deride the newtheories as fantasies arising from an almost willful misinterpretation of data and a perverse kind of political correctness. “I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni,” Betty J. Meggers, of the Smithsonian Institution, told me. “Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking.” Indeed, two Smithsonian-backed archaeologists from Argentina have argued that many of the larger mounds are natural floodplain deposits; a “small initial population” could have built the remaining causeways and raised fields in as little as a decade. Similar criticisms apply to many of the new scholarly claims about Indians, according to Dean R. Snow, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University. The problem is that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want,” he says. “It’s really easy to kid yourself.” And some have charged that the claims advance the political agenda of thosewho seek to discredit European culture, because the high numbers seem to inflate the scale of native loss.
Disputes also arise because the new theories have implications for today’s ecological battles. Much of the environmental movement is animated, consciously or not, by what geographer William Denevan calls “the pristine myth”—the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land, “untrammeled by man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a U.S. law that is one of the founding documents of the global environmental movement. To green activists, as the University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon has written, restoring this long-ago, putatively natural state is a task that society is morally bound to undertake. Yet if the new view is correct and the work of humankind was pervasive, where does that leave efforts to restore nature?
The Beni is a case in point. In addition to building roads, causeways, canals, dikes, reservoirs, mounds, raised agricultural fields, and possibly ball courts, Erickson has argued, the Indians who lived there before Columbus trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grassland. The trapping was not a matter of a few isolated natives with nets, but a society-wide effort in which hundreds or thousands of people fashioned dense, zigzagging networks of earthen fish weirs (fish-corralling fences) among the causeways. Much of the savanna is natural, the result of seasonal flooding. But the Indians maintained and expanded the grasslands by regularly setting huge areas on fire. Over the centuries the burning created an intricate ecosystem of fire-adapted plant species dependent on indigenous pyrophilia. The Beni’s current inhabitants still burn, although now it is mostly to maintain the savanna for cattle. When we flew over the region, the dry season had just begun, but mile-long lines of flame were already on the march. Smoke rose into the sky in great, juddering pillars. In the charred areas behind the fires were the blackened spikes of trees, many of them of species that activists fight to save in other parts of Amazonia.
The future of the Beni is uncertain, especially its most thinly settled region, near the border with Brazil. Some outsiders want to develop the area for ranches, as has been done with many U.S. grasslands. Others want to keep this sparsely populated region as close to wilderness as possible. Local Indian groups regard this latter proposal with suspicion. If the Beni becomes a reserve for the “natural,” they ask, what international organization would let them continue setting the plains afire? Could any outside group endorse large-scale burning in Amazonia? Instead, Indians propose placing control of the land into their hands. Activists, in turn, regard that idea without enthusiasm—some indigenous groups in the U.S. Southwest have promoted the use of their reservations as repositories for nuclear waste. And, of course, there is all that burning. link
“Don’t touch that tree,” Balée said.
I froze. I was climbing a low, crumbly hill and had been about to support myself by grasping a scrawny, almost vine-like tree with splayed leaves. “Triplaris americana,” said Balée, an expert in forest botany. “You have to watch out for it.” In an unusual arrangement, he said, T. americana plays host to colonies of tiny red ants—indeed, it has trouble surviving without them. The ants occupy minute tunnels just beneath the bark. In return for shelter, the ants attack anything that touches the tree—insect, bird, unwary writer. The venom-squirting ferocity of their attack gives rise to T. americana’s local nickname: devil tree.
At the base of the devil tree, exposing its roots, was a deserted animal burrow. Balée scraped out some dirt with a knife, then waved me over, along with Erickson and my son Newell, who were accompanying us. The depression was thick with busted pottery. We could see the rims of plates and what looked like the foot of a teakettle—it was shaped like a human foot, complete with painted toenails. Balée plucked out half a dozen pieces of ceramic: shards of pots and plates, a chipped length of cylindrical bar that may have been part of a pot’s support leg. As much as an eighth of the hill, by volume, was composed of such fragments, he said. You could dig almost anywhere on it and see the like. We were clambering up an immense pile of broken crockery.
The pile is known as Ibibate, at fifty-nine feet one of the tallest known forested mounds in the Beni. Erickson explained to me that the pieces of ceramic were probably intended to help build up and aerate the muddy soil for settlement and agriculture. But though this explanation makes sense on engineering grounds, he said, it doesn’t make the long-ago actions of the moundbuilders any less mysterious. The mounds cover such an enormous area that they seem unlikely to be the byproduct of waste. Monte Testaccio, the hill of broken pots southeast of Rome, was a garbage dump for the entire imperial city. Ibibate is larger than Monte Testaccio and but one of hundreds of similar mounds. Surely the Beni did not generate more waste than Rome—the ceramics in Ibibate, Erickson argues, indicate that large numbers of people, many of them skilled laborers, lived for a long time on these mounds, feasting and drinking exuberantly all the while. The number of potters necessary to make the heaps of crockery, the time required for labor, the number of people needed to provide food and shelter for the potters, the organization of large-scale destruction and burial—all of it is evidence, to Erickson’s way of thinking, that a thousand years ago the Beni was the site of a highly structured society, one that through archaeological investigation was just beginning to come into view.
Accompanying us that day were two Sirionó Indians, Chiro Cuéllar and his son-in-law Rafael. The two men were wiry, dark, and nearly beardless; walking beside them on the trail, I had noticed small nicks in their earlobes. Rafael, cheerful almost to bumptiousness, peppered the afternoon with comments; Chiro, a local figure of authority, smoked locally made “Marlboro” cigarettes and observed our progress with an expression of amused tolerance. They lived about a mile away, in a little village at the end of a long, rutted dirt road. We had driven there earlier in the day, parking in the shade of a tumbledown school and some old missionary buildings. The structures were clustered near the top of a small hill—another ancient mound. While Newell and I waited by the truck, Erickson and Balée went inside the school to obtain permission from Chiro and the other members of the village council to tramp around. Noticing that we were idle, a couple of Sirionó kids tried to persuade Newell and me to look at a young jaguar in a pen, and to give them money for this thrill. After a few minutes, Erickson and Balée emerged with the requisite permission—and two chaperones, Chiro and Rafael. Now, climbing up Ibibate, Chiro observed that I was standing by the devil tree. Keeping his expression deadpan, he suggested that I climb it. Up top, he said, I would find some delicious jungle fruit. “It will be like nothing you have experienced before,” he promised.
From the top of Ibibate we were able to see the surrounding savanna. Perhaps a quarter mile away, across a stretch of yellow, waist-high grass, was a straight line of trees—an ancient raised causeway, Erickson said. Otherwise the countryside was so flat that we could see for miles in every direction—or, rather, we could have seen for miles, if the air in some directions had not been filled with smoke.
Afterward I wondered about the relationship of our escorts to this place. Were the Sirionó like contemporary Italians living among the monuments of the Roman Empire? I asked Erickson and Balée that question during the drive back.
Their answer continued sporadically through the rest of the evening, as we rode to our lodgings in an unseasonable cold rain and then had dinner. In the 1970s, they said, most authorities would have answered my question about the Sirionó in one way. Today most would answer it in another, different way. The difference involves what I came to think of, rather unfairly, as Holmberg’s Mistake.
Although the Sirionó are but one of a score of Native American groups in the Beni, they are the best known. Between 1940 and 1942 a young doctoral student named Allan R. Holmberg lived among them. He published his account of their lives, Nomads of the Long Bow, in 1950. (The title refers to the six-foot bows the Sirionó use for hunting.) Quickly recognized as a classic, Nomads remains an iconic and influential text; as filtered through countless other scholarly articles and the popular press, it became one of the main sources for the outside world’s image of South American Indians.
The Sirionó, Holmberg reported, were “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world.” Living in constant want and hunger, he said, they had no clothes, no domestic animals, no musical instruments (not even rattles and drums), no art or design (except necklaces of animal teeth), and almost no religion (the Sirionó “conception of the cosmos” was “almost completely uncrystallized”). Incredibly, they could not count beyond three or make fire (they carried it, he wrote, “from camp to camp in a [burning] brand”). Their poor lean-tos, made of haphazardly heaped palm fronds, were so ineffective against rain and insects that the typical band member “undergoes many a sleepless night during the year.” Crouched over meager campfires during the wet, buggy nights, the Sirionó were living exemplars of primitive humankind—the “quintessence” of “man in the raw state of nature,” as Holmberg put it. For millennia, he thought, they had existed almost without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence. Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.
Holmberg was a careful and compassionate researcher whose detailed observations of Sirionó life remain valuable today. And he bravely surmounted trials in Bolivia that would have caused many others to give up. During his months in the field he was always uncomfortable, usually hungry, and often sick. Blinded by an infection in both eyes, he walked for days through the forest to a clinic, holding the hand of a Sirionó guide. He never fully recovered his health. After his return, he became head of the anthropology department at Cornell University, from which position he led its celebrated efforts to alleviate poverty in the Andes. Nonetheless, he was wrong about the Sirionó. And he was wrong about the Beni, the place they inhabited—wrong in a way that is instructive, even exemplary.
Before Columbus, Holmberg believed, both the people and the land had no real history. Stated so baldly, this notion—that the indigenous peoples of the Americas floated changelessly through the millennia until 1492—may seem ludicrous. But flaws in perspective often appear obvious only after they are pointed out. In this case they took decades to rectify.
The Bolivian government’s instability and fits of anti-American and anti- European rhetoric ensured that few foreign anthropologists and archaeologists followed Holmberg into the Beni. Not only was the government hostile, the region, a center of the cocaine trade in the 1970s and 1980s, was dangerous. Today there is less drug trafficking, but smugglers’ runways can still be seen, cut into remote patches of forest. The wreck of a crashed drug plane sits not far from the airport in Trinidad, the biggest town in the province. During the drug wars “the Beni was neglected, even by Bolivian standards,” according to Robert Langstroth, a geographer and range ecologist in Wisconsin who did his dissertation fieldwork there. “It was a backwater of a backwater.” Gradually a small number of scientists ventured into the region. What they learned transformed their understanding of the place and its people.
Just as Holmberg believed, the Sirionó were among the most culturally impoverished people on earth. But this was not because they were unchanged holdovers from humankind’s ancient past but because smallpox and influenza laid waste to their villages in the 1920s. Before the epidemics at least three thousand Sirionó, and probably many more, lived in eastern Bolivia. By Holmberg’s time fewer than 150 remained—a loss of more than 95 percent in less than a generation. So catastrophic was the decline that the Sirionó passed through a genetic bottleneck. (A genetic bottleneck occurs when a population becomes so small that individuals are forced to mate with relatives, which can produce deleterious hereditary effects.) The effects of the bottleneck were described in 1982, when Allyn Stearman of the University of Central Florida became the first anthropologist to visit the Sirionó since Holmberg. Stearman discovered that the Sirionó were thirty times more likely to be born with clubfeet than typical human populations. And almost all the Sirionó had unusual nicks in their earlobes, the traits I had noticed on the two men accompanying us.
Even as the epidemics hit, Stearman learned, the group was fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region. The Bolivian military aided the incursion by hunting down the Sirionó and throwing them into what were, in effect, prison camps. Those released from confinement were forced into servitude on the ranches. The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.
Far from being leftovers from the Stone Age, in fact, the Sirionó are probably relative newcomers to the Beni. They speak a language in the Tupí-Guaraní group, one of the most important Indian language families in South America but one not common in Bolivia. Linguistic evidence, first weighed by anthropologists in the 1970s, suggests that they arrived from the north as late as the seventeenth century, about the time of the first Spanish settlers and missionaries. Other evidence suggests they may have come a few centuries earlier; Tupí-Guaraní–speaking groups, possibly including the Sirionó, attacked the Inka empire in the early sixteenth century. No one knows why the Sirionó moved in, but one reason may be simply that the Beni then was little populated. Not long before, the previous inhabitants’ society had disintegrated.
To judge by Nomads of the Long Bow, Holmberg did not know of this earlier culture—the culture that built the causeways and mounds and fish weirs. He didn’t see that the Sirionó were walking through a landscape that had been shaped by somebody else. A few European observers before Holmberg had remarked upon the earthworks’ existence, though some doubted that the causeways and forest islands were of human origin. But they did not draw systematic scholarly attention until 1961, when William Denevan came to Bolivia. Then a doctoral student, he had learned of the region’s peculiar landscape during an earlier stint as a cub reporter in Peru and thought it might make an interesting topic for his thesis. Upon arrival he discovered that oil-company geologists, the only scientists in the area, believed the Beni was thick with the remains of an unknown civilization.
Convincing a local pilot to push his usual route westward, Denevan examined the Beni from above. He observed exactly what I saw four decades later: isolated hillocks of forest; long raised berms; canals; raised agricultural fields; circular, moat-like ditches; and odd, zigzagging ridges. “I’m looking out of one of these DC-3 windows, and I’m going berserk in this little airplane,” Denevan said to me. “I knew these things were not natural. You just don’t have that kind of straight line in nature.” As Denevan learned more about the landscape, his amazement grew. “It’s a completely humanized landscape,” he said. “To me, it was clearly the most exciting thing going on in the Amazon and adjacent areas. It may be the most important thing in all of South America, I think. Yet it was practically untouched” by scientists. It is still almost untouched—there aren’t even any detailed maps of the earthworks and canals.
Beginning as much as three thousand years ago, this long-ago society—Erickson believes it was probably founded by the ancestors of Arawak-speaking peoples now called the Mojo and the Bauré—created one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet. These people built up the mounds for homes and farms, constructed the causeways and canals for transportation and communication, created the fish weirs to feed themselves, and burned the savannas to keep them clear of invading trees. A thousand years ago their society was at its height. Their villages and towns were spacious, formal, and guarded by moats and palisades. In Erickson’s hypothetical reconstruction, as many as a million people may have walked the causeways of eastern Bolivia in their long cotton tunics, heavy ornaments dangling from their wrists and necks.
Today, hundreds of years after this Arawak culture passed from the scene, the forest on and around Ibibate mound looks like the classic Amazon of conservationists’ dreams: lianas thick as a human arm, dangling blade-like leaves more than six feet long, smooth-boled Brazil nut trees, thick-bodied flowers that smell like warm meat. In terms of species richness, Balée told me, the forest islands of Bolivia are comparable to any place in South America. The same is true of the Beni savanna, it seems, with its different complement of species. Ecologically, the region is a treasure, but one designed and executed by human beings. Erickson regards the landscape of the Beni as one of humankind’s greatest works of art, a masterpiece that until recently was almost completely unknown, a masterpiece in a place with a name that few people outside Bolivia would recognize. link

A View from Above
(Part 3)
The Beni was no anomaly. For almost five centuries, Holmberg’s Mistake—the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state—held sway in scholarly work, and from there fanned out to high school textbooks, Hollywood movies, newspaper articles, environmental campaigns, romantic adventure books, and silk-screened T-shirts. It existed in many forms and was embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them. Holmberg’s Mistake explained the colonists’ view of most Indians as incurably vicious barbarians; its mirror image was the dreamy stereotype of the Indian as a Noble Savage. Positive or negative, in both images Indians lacked what social scientists call agency—they were not actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way.
The Noble Savage dates back as far as the first full-blown ethnography of American indigenous peoples, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Apologética Historia Sumaria, written mainly in the 1530s. Las Casas, a conquistador who repented of his actions and became a priest, spent the second half of his long life opposing European cruelty in the Americas. To his way of thinking, Indians were natural creatures who dwelt, gentle as cows, in the “terrestrial paradise.” In their prelapsarian innocence, he believed, they had been quietly waiting—waiting for millennia—for Christian instruction. Las Casas’s contemporary, the Italian commentator Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, shared these views. Indians, he wrote (I quote the English translation from 1556), “lyve in that goulden world of whiche owlde writers speake so much,” existing “simplye and innocentlye without inforcement of lawes.”
In our day, beliefs about Indians’ inherent simplicity and innocence refer mainly to their putative lack of impact on the environment. This notion dates back at least to Henry David Thoreau, who spent much time seeking “Indian wisdom,” an indigenous way of thought that supposedly did not encompass measuring or categorizing, which he viewed as the evils that allowed human beings to change Nature. Thoreau’s ideas continue to be influential. In the wake of the first Earth Day in 1970, a group named Keep America Beautiful, Inc., put up billboards that portrayed a Cherokee actor named Iron Eyes Cody quietly weeping over polluted land. The campaign was enormously successful. For almost a decade the image of the crying Indian appeared around the world. Yet though Indians here were playing a heroic role, the advertisement still embodied Holmberg’s Mistake, for it implicitly depicted Indians as people who never changed their environment from its original wild state. Because history is change, they were people without history.
Las Casas’s anti-Spanish views met with such harsh attacks that he instructed his executors to publish the Apologética Historia forty years after his death (he died in 1566). In fact, the book did not appear in complete form until 1909. As the delay suggests, polemics for the Noble Savage tended to meet with little sympathy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Emblematic was the U.S. historian George Bancroft, dean of his profession, who argued in 1834 that before Europeans arrived North America was “an unproductive waste . . . Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and of political connection.” Like Las Casas, Bancroft believed that Indians had existed in societies without change—except that Bancroft regarded this timelessness as an indication of sloth, not innocence.
In different forms Bancroft’s characterization was carried into the next century. Writing in 1934, Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the founders of American anthropology, theorized that the Indians in eastern North America could not develop—could have no history—because their lives consisted of “warfare that was insane, unending, continuously attritional.” Escaping the cycle of conflict was “well-nigh impossible,” he believed. “The group that tried to shift its values from war to peace was almost certainly doomed to early extinction.” Kroeber conceded that Indians took time out from fighting to grow crops, but insisted that agriculture “was not basic to life in the East; it was an auxiliary, in a sense a luxury.” As a result, “Ninety-nine per cent or more of what [land] might have been developed remained virgin.”
Four decades later, Samuel Eliot Morison, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, closed his two-volume European Discovery of America with the succinct claim that Indians had created no lasting monuments or institutions. Imprisoned in changeless wilderness, they were “pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of any hope for the future.” Native people’s “chief function in history,” the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton, proclaimed in 1965, “is to show to the present an image of the past from which by history it has escaped.”
Textbooks reflected academic beliefs faithfully. In a survey of U.S. history schoolbooks, the writer Frances Fitzgerald concluded that the characterization of Indians had moved, “if anything, resolutely backward” between the 1840s and the 1940s. Earlier writers thought of Indians as important, though uncivilized, but later books froze them into a formula: “lazy, childlike, and cruel.” A main textbook of the 1940s devoted only a “fewparagraphs” to Indians, she wrote, “of which the last is headed ‘The IndiansWere Backward.’ ”
These views, though less common today, continue to appear. The 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a standard high school textbook by three well-known historians, summed up Indian history thusly: “For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and itsworks.” The story of Europeans in the NewWorld, the book informed students, “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.”
It is always easy for those living in the present to feel superior to those who lived in the past. AlfredW. Crosby, a University of Texas historian, noted that many of the researchers who embraced Holmberg’s Mistake lived in an era when the driving force of events seemed to be great leaders of European descent and when white societies appeared to be overwhelming nonwhite societies everywhere. Throughout all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, nationalism was ascendant, and historians identified history with nations, rather than with cultures, religions, or ways of life. But the Second World War taught the West that non-Westerners—the Japanese, in this instance—were capable of swift societal change. The rapid disintegration of European colonial empires further adumbrated the point. Crosby likened the effects of these events on social scientists to those on astronomers from “the discovery that the faint smudges seen between stars on the Milky Way were really distant galaxies.”
Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researchers have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. (“We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one,” scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, “the myth of the humanized landscape.”) But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.
Advertisements still celebrate nomadic, ecologically pure Indians on horseback chasing bison in the Great Plains of North America, but at the time of Columbus the great majority of Native Americans could be found south of the Río Grande. They were not nomadic, but built up and lived in some of the world’s biggest and most opulent cities. Far from being dependent on big-game hunting, most Indians lived on farms. Others subsisted on fish and shellfish. As for the horses, they were from Europe; except for llamas in the Andes, the Western Hemisphere had no beasts of burden. In other words, the Americas were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers had previously imagined.
And older, too. link


  • Clark Erickson's Website has considerably more info and pictures about this fascinating area in Bolivia.
  • In the late 1990s ranchers stripped the forest in the Brazilian state of Acre, across the border from the Beni—only to find earthworks from a previously unknown society. This aerial photo by the archaeologist Martti Pärssinen, which dates from 2003, was the first to be widely disseminated; a Brazilian researcher's gallery of images, which dates from the year before, can be found here.

The entire intro in PDF format (these pages just give you the first half) can be found here. Warning: the entire file, which contains some big images, is three-plus megabytes.
Here is a free sample from the audiobook of 1491, created by Highbridge Audiobooks.

Posted by por AMC on 12:48. Filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

0 comentários for "Sugestão de Leitura: "1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus""

Leave a reply