Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

Charles C. Mann and Rebecca Stefoff. 2009. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster.

Available  [here]

This book should be in every school.

The study of historical human influences on the environment is hampered by stubborn adherence to myths and falsehoods developed in childhood. Schools teach that Native Americans were few, savage, and insignificant wandering nomads who lived in a wilderness before Europeans arrived to tame the Americas.

Charles C. Mann’s 2005 bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus [here], exploded many of those myths. He essayed the new, developing ideas and evidence regarding pre-Columbian America indicating that the Western Hemisphere was populated by millions of people living in civilizations older and more advanced than those of the invading Europeans.

Now Mann and co-author Rebecca Stefoff have adapted 1491 into a book for school children. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 is a gorgeous “coffee table” book filled with vibrant pictures and a text that is exciting and understandable for younger scholars.

Teachers and parents take note. Don’t let your kids grow up to be ignorant of their roots. The landscapes we live in have been cultural landscapes, shaped by humanity, for thousands of years. The heritage of place is your heritage and that of your children.

Part One of Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 examines the question “How Old was the New World?” Archaeologists keep pushing the date back, but without a doubt human beings were living throughout the Americas 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC). The first cities may have been along the Peruvian coast. The pyramids at Huaricanga are at least 5,500 years old. The residents also built irrigation canals to water cotton fields, from which they made nets to harvest fish. Ancient mariners sailed far out into the Pacific to net anchovies, sardines, and other fish. Their cultural stamp (the distinctive gods carved on gourds) can be seen in rock carvings and temples crafted thousands of years later at Lake Titicaca,  the cradle of Incan civilization.

Part Two asks “Why Did Europe Succeed?” and includes four chapters on “The Great Meeting” (Cortez and the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan), “Long, Long Ago” (the first Americans, the PaleoIndians, and Monte Verde in Chile), “Extinction” (the demise of the megafauna, including mammoths), and “Disease-Free Paradise? (the impact of European disease on the Native Americans).”

Part Three examines “Were the Americas really a Wilderness?” It’s chapters include “Amazonia” with discussion of the fruit and nut orchards found across the Amazon Basin and the anthropogenic soils called terra preta. “Land of Fire” discusses the way in which Indians maintained a living anthropogenic mosaic of prairies, savannas, and open, park-like forests, principally through the use of controlled burning. In “The Created Wilderness” the authors explain how those human-shaped landscapes were abandoned when the Indian populations nearly disappeared following the introduction of Old World diseases.

We cannot plan for the future if we do not understand the past. Forests cannot be cared for, and the desired future conditions cannot be achieved, if we do not have a firm grasp on how our forests developed in the first place.

Mann and Stefoff seek to instruct our youth with the truth, so that as adults they can make informed judgments about environmental stewardship.

Buy this book. Better yet, buy a dozen copies and donate them to your local schools. Raise the consciousness about the distant past so that our coming future is guided by knowledge instead of myth.

 
  
 
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