Unless you’re an anthropologist, it’s likely that everything you know about American prehistory is wrong. Science journalist Mann’s survey of the current knowledge is a bracing corrective.
Historians once thought that prehistoric Indian peoples somehow lived outside of history, adrift and directionless, “passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way”; that view was central to the myth of the noble savage. In fact, writes Mann (Noah’s Choice, with Mark L. Plummer, 1995), Native Americans were as active in shaping their environments as anyone else. They built great and wealthy cities; they lived, for the most part, on farms; and their home continents “were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers had previously imagined.” In defending this view, Mann visits several thriving controversies in the historic/prehistoric record. One is the question of pre-contact demographics: old-school scholars had long advanced the idea that there were only a few million Native Americans at the time of the Columbian arrival, whereas revisionists in the 1960s posited that there were eight million on the island of Hispaniola alone, a figure punctured by revisionists of revisionism, now beset by Native American activists for the political incorrectness of adjusting the census. Another controversy is the chronology of human presence in the Americas: the old date of 12,000 b.c., courtesy of the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska, no longer cuts it. Other arguments center on the nature of Native American societies such as the Aztec and Inca, the latter of whom built a great empire that, defying Western notions of logic, had no market component. Mann addresses each controversy with care, according the old-timers their due while making it clear that his sympathies lie, in the main, with the rising generation. He closes with a provocative thesis: namely, that the present worldwide movement toward democracy owes not to Locke or Newtonian physics, but to Indians, “living, breathing role models of human liberty.”
An excellent, and highly accessible, survey of America’s past: a worthy companion to Jake Page’s In the Hands of the Great Spirit (2003).