Krupp: 1491

Jan 17, 2014

The best book I read last year was `1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.' It's a book by Charles Mann, published in 2005, that dispels many myths about pre-Columbian America.

From it, I learned that the Western hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been commonly thought. It's been estimated that there were 112 million people in the Americas before Columbus arrived - more than the entire population of Europe. Of course, ninety five percent of them were wiped out by smallpox, typhus, diphtheria and influenza carried by European settlers.

I was also interested to learn that Mesoamerican agriculture shaped the natural landscape in Andean culture. Maize had a dynamic effect on the rise in crop surpluses, populations and advanced cultures. Indians bred maize from scratch, as it had no wild ancestor - unlike wheat, barley and oats, which have wild relatives that can be harvested and eaten. Maize's nearest relatives, the teosintes, are essentially not edible. Maize was grown on a milpa, an intricate system of planting multiple crops like corn, beans and squash. These three sisters were nutritionally and environmentally complementary and promoted sustainability.

Indigenous people also transformed their lands with fire; it was used to burn shrubs and unproductive trees, to open an area to sunlight and to create grasslands. Burning encouraged an abundance of animals they hunted. This type of husbandry was quite different from the European method of domesticating animals. Since Europeans didn't burn the land, their forests grew thicker.

The Beni tropical savanna grassland in Northern Bolivia was an agricultural area some 2,000 years ago. Located in the Amazon basin, it covered thousands of acres. The streams were filled with fish weirs, fire was used to clear trees and undergrowth, and fire-adapted fruit and nut trees were spared. Earthworks included raised fields, mounds, canals, causeways, and water reservoirs built around the floodplains.

A 1541 account of a journey by the Spaniard Francisco de Orellanas describes a densely populated region along the Amazon river, where archaeologists have found thousands of areas of fertile soil interspersed with infertile stretches. These soils, known as "Terra Preta do Indio" or Amazon Dark Earth are not natural but were created by humans. This dark, fertile soil is found throughout the Amazon basin and the name, Terra Preta, refers to its very high charcoal content. The soil was built by adding a mixture of charcoal and bone to poor soil and nutrients from organic matter such as plant residues, animal waste, and fish bones. These soils were also found close to living quarters where there were cooking fires and what are called kitchen garden middens. Terra preta is also called biochar which can actually - if surprisingly - be purchased right here in Vermont.