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Bestselling Book Challenges Long-held Theories About Life in America Before Columbus

Americans celebrate Columbus Day on October 10, commemorating the arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus in the New World. A best-selling new book looks at evolving ideas about what that world was like before Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, and how it was changed forever by the wave of European exploration that followed. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf) was written by Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for the magazines Science and The Atlantic Monthly.

Charles Mann's new book was sparked by a reporting assignment more than 20 years ago, that took him to Maya ruins in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. That led him to other ancient Indian sites, to interviews with archaeologists and anthropologists, and to the realization that their ideas about the pre-Columbian Americas differed dramatically from what he had learned in school, and from what his son was being taught, as well.

"He was learning the same thing I was learning," recalls Mr. Mann, "which was that Native Americans probably walked across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age, that they lived for the most part in small, scattered bands, and that they had so little impact on the environment that for all intents and purposes when Columbus landed the hemisphere was a wilderness. And one way to summarize the perspective held I think by most researchers now is that none of these things are true."

In 1491, Charles Mann looks at newer theories about pre-Columbian Indians, how some are replacing older ideas, and how others still provoke heated debate. These theories include revised thinking about when and how the first Native Americans arrived in the New World. "There has been a lot of doubt cast on the part about the ice-free corridor they went through," the author says, "whether it actually existed, whether it was actually habitable. And if it wasn't, then you have to wonder, how did those people get across the 2,500 hundred miles of ice with nothing on it?"

Mr. Mann says archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans were living at the tip of South America at the same time the Bering Strait was passable. "So you have to wonder how was it that they crossed the Bering Strait and raced down there just in time to settle. There are interesting pieces of evidence that suggest that the current Native Americans separated from their Siberian ancestors perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, and if that was the case, they probably would have come down by boat."

Researchers are also challenging estimates as to how many Indians were in the Americas by the time Columbus arrived. Charles Mann says the hotly contested figures reach an extreme high of 150 to 200 million and a low of 20 to 30 million, with the heaviest concentration in central Mexico. "And that, according to a number of researchers, probably was the most densely settled place on earth at that time," he says. "There were something like 30 million people in that area alone. You also had an awful lot of people in the Inca Empire, which ran along the Andes down much of South America, and there are estimates of populations on the order of 20 million there."

In fact, Charles Mann says the Inca Empire was the largest empire on earth at that time. "One way to put it is that the Inca Empire extended from the equivalent of Stockholm to the equivalent of Cairo, and had the world's largest road network at the time."

Stereotypes about pre-Columbian Indians as having only simple technologies are being dispelled as well. "In fact their technology was quite sophisticated," Charles Mann says. "It was just very different from ours. And the example is metallurgy. They didn't use metals for tools very much, but they did have all kinds of complicated ways of making alloys, of smelting and creating these very thin foils. They prized flexibility and all these other things that weren't as important in Europe where they prized hardness and making a sharp edge."

They were also skilled farmers, who had a profound impact on the landscapes they inhabited, Charles Mann maintains. He sites the Amazon rainforest as a prime example. "They used techniques to take the notoriously poor soil of the Amazon and create what is called terra preta do Indio, which is Indian black earth, these long lasting, very fertile soils. It's a program of environmental modification that has enormous implications in the sense that if we could learn how they did this, there's a possibility we could apply these techniques to places in Africa and Asia where the soils are poor or exhausted."

Charles Mann notes that the theories he explores in his book are debated for ideological reasons across the political spectrum, as well as throughout the scholarly community. Dean Snow is a professor of archaeological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. He takes issue with several findings in 1491, including the high population figures that have emerged from recent research. But he too sees a gap between what the public knows about pre-Columbian history, and what scholars continue to learn.

Dean Snow also sees an impressive record of accomplishment in that history. "The reason that the American Indian experience is so important for the rest of us is that here they were virtually isolated from the rest of the world for 14,000 years, and yet the track of achievements you can trace archaeologically in the Americas remarkably parallels what went on in what we like to call the Old World. So it is a wonderful laboratory, the Americas, in which to study what is possible in human nature over time."

That isolation ended in 1492. In the centuries that followed, Native Americans died from imported diseases in huge numbers -- numbers far greater than previously thought, if the population figures cited in 1491 are correct.

Whether the arrival of Columbus is viewed as the end of a flourishing era of accomplishment for Native Americans, or the start of a new era of opportunity for Europeans, author Charles Mann believes that Columbus Day represents a major milestone. "Completely different ecosystems," he says, "different species and human beings that developed in extraordinarily different ways -- these all mixed together in a wild jumble." And Charles Mann says to some extent that's the world we still live in today, a world that has been violently shaken by an unprecedented collision of ecosystems and cultures.