I finished this fantastic book recently and I've been boring people to death at cocktail parties (okay, one cocktail party) talking about how great it was. It's called 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. It's all about the latest research about what America was like before the Europeans came here. It's hard to do it justice in a blog post, but here are a few highlights:
First, a lot of archaeologists now believe that European diseases (especially smallpox) killed about 90% of the Indians. In some places, this happened before the Indians even came into contact with Europeans (through trade with other Indians), and definitely before contact with European settlers (as opposed to explorers). As a result, many of the impressions that early visitors had were of societies that had literally been decimated by disease. One result of this depopulation is that Europeans imported slaves from Africa for labor.
Second, corn is one of the most important inventions in human history. Unlike crops that were domesticated in the Middle East (like wheat and millet) it is so unlike its wild predecessors that there is disagreement about what they were. Someone had to purposely set out to create it, by a process that the journal Science called "man's first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering." And today it supplies a significant percentage of the world's nutrition. I found this really humbling. I mean, iPods and cars are great and everything. But people living in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago invented corn!
Third, Indians transformed the land, so that what we think of as "wild" is actually a manmade landscape. There is a fascinating chapter about the Amazon rainforest. Apparently, the soil there is very poor, and in fact the reason that the foliage in the rainforest is so lush is that plants have adapted to get their nutrients from the air rather than the soil. Archaeologists had always thought that this area could not support large scale human settlements, but they've had to rethink that in light of recent findings. It now appears that the people living there somehow created large patches of fertile soil that has remained fertile for thousands of years. No one knows how they did this, but it seems to have involved fortifying the soil with thousands of shards of broken pottery.
The forests of eastern North America were also transformed by Indians through the widespread practice of lighting forest fires to clear the brush. The Indians also hunted animals to keep their numbers manageable and to keep them away from their crops. When the Indians died, the brush grew back and the animal populations skyrocketed. So, what the early settlers assumed was the natural, timeless condition of the forests really was not.
Finally, in the conclusion, the author hints that the ideas that informed the American Revolution -- equality and liberty -- came as much from the Indians as from the Enlightenment. The early settlements had to offer their residents more equality and more freedom to compete with the Indians, and those ideas caught on. Likewise, he claims that is no coincidence that a lot of the early feminists came from the Finger Lakes area of New York, because the Indian tribes there had women as the heads of their clans.
My only complaint is that the book is organized thematically and so it skips around chronologically and geographically, which is sort of frustrating at times. You also have the nagging feeling that the author could be completely wrong about stuff. He is a journalist, not an archaeologist, and he is quite candid that there are raging debates in academia about some issues. He seems to do a good job of giving both sides of the argument, but you never know. Still, it's a fascinating book. I highly recommend it.