AoR 95: Charles C Mann, The Americas Before Columbus, Part 1

"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" has been a New York Times best-selling book since publication in 2006. Charles C Mann's writings have reformed popular ideas about Native Americans and challenged cherished notions of nature. Join Charles and Tip in part 1 of a two-episode discussion about the origins of the book and some of the revelations about the peoples in North, Central, and South Americas over the last 2000 years. Look up 1491 wherever you buy books and get yourself a copy to read.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on range lands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today on the Art of Range is Charles Mann. He is the author of several books and the winner of a National Academy's Communication Award a few years ago. But we're here today to talk about 1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. I have recommended this book more times than I can count since I read it a couple of years ago because it touches on so many things of importance to natural resource use. Charles, welcome.

>> It's a pleasure to be with you.

>> First, I think it'd be useful for the listening audience to have some idea of who you are. What is your background and what made you interested in anthropology and recent natural history? How did you come to be interested in the topics enough to delve into it such that you could write a book about it?

>> Well, my background's pretty simple. I majored in mathematics in college. Quickly realized that I wasn't going to be a mathematician. The competition was pretty steep and I was pretty good at math for an ordinary person but not good at math in the terms of mathematicians. And so I became a journalist. Because I'm not scared of numbers, I became a science journalist, partly because that was something I could do. And partly because I'm convinced that discoveries in science and technology are kind of the driving force for much of what happens today in our lives. And so I wanted to, you know, chronicle things that I was pretty sure were important. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I've been real interested in the environment and environmental issues. And so it was natural for me to take a look at environmental science. And I wasn't all that interested in anthropology though I took some anthropology courses. I didn't - I just was curious about it. I didn't really connect with anything else that I was doing until I kind of accidentally assignment ended up in the Yucatan Peninsula. Which is the big peninsula that juts out of Mexico into the Caribbean, in the early-1980s. And there, I visited some of the Maya ruins and I was absolutely flabbergasted. I'd lived in briefly in Greece and Rome, and these were larger than anything I saw in Greece and Rome in terms of the scale. And to my eye, at least, equally sophisticated. And I thought this is really strange. I mean, I learned about Greece and Rome in school. I think we should, but I don't know if the word Maya was even mentioned when I went to school. And so I, on my own, I went back several times and it just happened that I was going at the same time as the Maya writing was being deciphered. This is really a remarkable intellectual feat. Normally when you decipher unknown languages like Linear B and so forth, there's what they call crib, which is where you have a text with the same meaning in several different languages. And you can compare one to the other and that helps you. They didn't have anything like that for the Maya. They just figured it out basically out of sheer smartness and the help of local Maya people, themselves. And this is just a tremendous intellectual feat and I was fascinated by it. And then I gradually realized that there are things of equal interest happening in South America and in North America, but that archaeologists and anthropologists themselves often didn't know it. Because the disciplines were so split up. And when you added them up together, it created a picture of what the Americas had been like before Columbus that was completely different from anything that I had imagined. And I thought, you know, somebody should write a book.

>> Yeah, I think that's a good idea. Which book did you write first? For some reason, I have in my head that you wrote 1493 first and ran across research that was compelling you to write about the history before Columbus after you had written about the Americas after Columbus. But is that the way it went?

>> Yes, that's true. That's true.

>> Okay.

>> I thought somebody should write a book but I didn't think it should be me. And instead, at the same time, because you, you know, have different ideas swirling around in your head. I had read, just come across by chance, a remarkable book called Ecological Imperialism by Alfred Crosby that was also written in 1980s. And it was about what Dr. Crosby called the Columbian exchange. In fact, he'd written an earlier book called The Columbian Exchange that named it. And that was the enormous interchange of plants, and animals, and microbes, and, you know, creatures of all sort that occurred after Columbus. As you probably know, 200 million years ago, the Earth consisted of a single giant land mass scientists call Pangaea. And this, you know, geological forces split it up and for tens of millions of years, the, you know, our hemisphere and the Eastern hemisphere were separated. You know, the ecosystems here evolved almost completely isolated from each other. And then suddenly, they were brought, you know, back into connection through the ships of Columbus and the people who followed him. And on those ships, in addition to all the people, were all these other creatures. And they had - this had enormous impact. In fact, we're still rippling in the, you know, we're still living in the ripples to that. And so I was thinking that would be something to do because Crosby's book is stimulating an enormous amount of research. So I thought I could do an updated - I checked with Crosby. He didn't want to update his own book and I thought, well, I could do that. And then I thought, well, I should really know something about what the Americas were like before Columbus and that brought me back to this other idea. And I started writing it out and I realized, okay, I have to write this - this is the one I should write first.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> 1491, yeah.

>> What was the very first book that you wrote? Was this it?

>> No, no. I've written a couple of books in collaboration with other people and I wrote a book about physics. They were very, you know, very different things. This is the first book I wrote on my own without a collaborator.

>> Got it, okay. Maybe before we jump into some of that, I want to discover something real quick. In the book, you refer to Native Americans or Indigenous peoples as Indians and that term has become somewhat controversial, maybe more so since the time of writing the book. I mentioned in our previous correspondence that I had been writing back and forth with Dr. William Denevan. And I - in reading his essay, Nature Rebounds, I quote you on this but I'd like to hear your thoughts directly on why you used the term Indian with a capital I in the book. Instead of, you know, some other of the various names that had been proffered for how to refer to the people who were here before us.

>> Well, first, there's no real good name for, you know, a collective noun for the people who lived in the Americas, the, you know, the original inhabitants.

>> Right.

>> And by that, I mean a name that's generally accepted by those people, themselves. So in Canada, for example, you know, it's common we call them First Nations. Here, it's Native Americans. But if you go to, you know, Peru or something, and I referred to Native Americans, quite, you know, several times I was rebuked. "No, no, no, no. Native Americans are the people up North. We're Indians."

>> That's interesting.

>> And the second thing, so, you know, any name you use is going to be a bad name and there's actually a deeper reason for that. Which is, you know, at the time they were talking about, the time of, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, people back then didn't think of themselves as, quote-unquote, "Indians." You know, this big collective thing, any more than people in Europe in, you know, 1,000 A.D. thought of themselves as Europeans. They were French or they were, you know, Celtic, or whatever they were. And so any name is going to be kind of artificial. So Indians is the name that the great bulk of the people that I talk to use to refer to themselves. You know, a little while ago, I had dinner with a Comanche archaeologist. She's Comanche and Pueblo, Mary Weahkee, and she was telling funny, you know, telling funny stories, and she talked about something that surprised her. And she said, "Whoa, Indian, wait a minute." You know, so, you know, so that kind of thing you hear a great deal. And that's why I did it. I tried to, you know, indicate in the whole section of the book that, look, this is the compromise I made and this is why I made it. There's a section of the book at the back where I sort of say, look, there's no good name. This is what I chose.

>> Right. You refer to that same phenomenon with the names, more specific sounding names. That had been given to all kinds of different groups of people, Olmecs, and Aztecs, and, you know, all those names that were invented by somebody besides them.

>> Right.

>> To refer to a specific people group.

>> Yeah, and things have changed since I wrote the book, and so now I use Indian a bit less because more and more people are using the word indigenous, which wasn't nearly as common 20 years ago. And the other thing that I'm trying to do is as Native groups have resurged, I'm trying to use more and more of what they - the names they call themselves. So, you know, the, you know, I mean the simple one is you don't say Sioux, you say Lakota. And that's because, quote-unquote, "Sioux" people, you know, many of them don't like the name because they perceive it as being an insult given to them by their neighbors. There's a little bit of linguistic argument about that, but the point is they don't like it so it's pretty easy to say Lakota, right?

>> Right, right. If you didn't want me to call you Charles, I'd call you something else.

>> Right, right. It's just a matter I try to be polite. Basically, I see it as a matter of politeness.

>> Right. Yeah, I think one - there's so many topics we could cover, it's hard to know where to start. But one common entry point that's - that comes up in various things that have been written about 1491. Is the claim that the population of the Americas was much, much larger than we think it was during the say 1,000 years before European arrival. You know, which happened over a period of time, not at 1492. But still, you know, we have, I think, the idea that there were sort of scattered hunter-gatherer groups in, you know, groupings of a few family units. And they were semi-nomadic and were mostly hunter-gatherers. And correct me if I'm summarizing incorrectly. But I feel like the claim in the book is that in North, and Central, and South America, there were way more people than we think with a lot more cultural organization than we think. To the extent that probably the population of the Americas was greater than that of Europe. And I'm not sure what time stamp you would put on that, but is that a good summary and am I characterizing this correctly?

>> Yeah. You know, I'll make a small correction at the end, but yes. I mean, the way to think about it is you think about Europe at the time, you think mainly of, you know, cities like Madrid, or Paris, or London. Although you recognize that there were people, you know, living out in the outback, you know, living in Lapland or something like that. But the actual cities, that's, you know, typically how you think of things. And the same thing is true of the Americas. There were very, very definitely people, you know, who were nomadic and so forth, but the great bulk of the population was either living in cities or connected to them. You know, there were farmers providing food for those cities. And so the setups in that way between Europe or Asia and the Americas weren't that different. The exact number of people in the Americas is - that's a really difficult question because you're dealing with trying to guess the number of people who lived in buildings and that requires knowing the number of people, knowing how much food you can grow, you know, knowing the number of buildings. There's a whole pile of uncertainties in there. But a reasonable way to say that is that today, most archaeologists I believe would say that there were roughly 40 to 60 million people in the Americas at the time of Columbus. And I should note that that number keeps creeping up. And so as a personal guess, this is just a guess, I wouldn't be surprised if you were - we were to be talking 20 years from now, wouldn't have shaken out at 60 to 80 million people. And another way of saying that is that was very, very roughly the same population as that in Western Europe at the time. And so it's conceivable there may have been more people here, but, you know, what we're talking about is that they are roughly the same order of magnitude.

>> Yeah, and how would you say that the average American, if there is such a thing, thinks of Indians from that time period, from before Columbus?

>> Well, you know, this - the average American's a constantly moving target. So but I think many, many people have in their head, you know, a picture of a guy on a horse with one of those hats with lots of feathers, you know, chasing after buffalo. And it was absolutely true. There were people who wore those hats, although not that many, and they chased after buffalo. But in fact, there were just much, much more diverse group of people than that image. So you, you know, and if you prodded Americans, they'd say, "Oh, right, right. There are those people in the Pueblos." You know, maybe if they live in the Northwest where I was raised, they would know that there were these giant houses in these, you know, complex societies with, you know, with the totem poles. And these very, very elaborate, you know, ceremonies who ate salmon. You know, there's all kinds of stuff going on. And so part of what I was trying to do in 1491 was just to say, you know, this single word, Indian, which, you know, is widely used. Actually masks an enormous thriving diversity of millions upon millions of people who lived in many, many different ways. And that this is really interesting to learn about.

>> Mm-hmm. I mentioned that I had talked with Dr. Denevan and he was one of the first people who was paying more attention to some of the evidence of larger-scale civilization in Central America. Describe you ended up getting in contact with him and using him as one of the primary resources for the book.

>> Well, Bill Denevan, William Denevan, he's a culture geographer at the University of Berkeley, California, Berkeley, and he's retired now. And he is a beyond any question, one of the greatest scholars that I've ever met. And he studied mostly South America, mostly the Amazon, but also - which is huge, right, the Amazon Basin is just this huge area, but also the areas to the west, you know, the Andes. And he was one of the first people in, you know, outside those areas to say, "Look, just look. There is evidence of extraordinary things here." And one of the beginning parts of my book, I describe how he was flying over lowland Bolivia in a small plane in the early-1960s. And he looked down and there are all these causeways, and roads, and obviously artificial mounds built in. He looked and he said, "There's an incredible human landscape here that is almost nobody knows anything about." And amazingly, you know, 70 years later, we're still learning about it. It's just beginning to come to light full sort of, you know, ramifications of what he saw in the early-1960s.

>> Yeah, and I would add to that there's been a lot of talk in the world of agriculture, which is more my domain, about terra preta. And some revelations about how the people in that part of the world overcame some of the natural biological limitations. Or what were perceived to be, you know, limitations to civilization through agriculture, you know, with various means of enhancing soil fertility and being able to grow food.

>> Yes.

>> I'm actually not an agronomist. I'm more of a rangeland ecologist dealing with native plant communities. But was that some of what he was finding?

>> Oh, yes. I mean, it's something that he's, you know, was a lead, and he did many things and that was one of them. And what he was finding is, if you think about it, you can imagine that every different human society is like an experiment in how to be human. An experiment to, you know, how do we feed ourselves? How do we organize ourselves? How do we rule ourselves? And the hundreds or thousands of different diverse societies in the Americas came up with all kinds of different ways of doing things. And one of the areas that they were most innovative in was agriculture. And a great deal of indigenous agriculture in the Americas was so different from European agriculture and European ideas of what agriculture was. That the first Europeans who came over couldn't really even --

>> Couldn't recognize it.

>> -- recognize what they were seeing as agriculture. And a big part of that difference was quite often you saw polyculture, you know, where people are growing multiple crops in the same area. And they were huge areas where they had what, you know, we typically call semi-domesticates, which are plants that are, you know, landscapes that are encouraged to have useful plants. With absolutely minimal human labor. And so that you can grow things with hardly paying any attention to them at all. And this kind of extensive mixed agriculture is about as different from European-style agriculture, which focuses on monoculture subsero [assumed spelling] crops, you know, within fenced fields. As you can imagine. And similarly, there's all kinds of tools that they used for agriculture that were not widely employed in Europe, although sometimes they had been in the distant past. And so that - there was a kind of Stephen Pyne calls it pyro culture where you used fire to manage entire landscapes. There was a kind of water harvesting that took place in places like the Southwest that was also unfamiliar to Europeans. And then there was these aquatic gardens in the Pacific Northwest. There's tons of stuff going on in terms of agriculture that - and landscape management that was I think really interesting. And as climate change is forcing us to reconsider what we're doing in different areas and making some of the things we've been doing harder and harder. This represents to me, at least, in my opinion, a well of knowledge and ideas that we should be thinking about.

>> Yeah, I think there are several ways in which we're almost moving back to the future in our response to some of these challenges. I mean, even before climate change was a concern, we were legitimately concerned about eventually declining oil production and the synthetic fertilizer that comes from it. Where we're, you know, currently still pretty much dependent on that. And there's been a lot of interest in reintegrating livestock into cropping systems and moving toward things like polycultural agricultural production. And I think you're right. I think we're rediscovering maybe what people had been doing for a long time that we just don't know about because there aren't written records of it.

>> Yeah, although there are clear sort of archaeological records and people doing this to this day. So it's, you know, really fascinating to me to see, you know, obviously, you know, and it's now we're sort of veering off of, you know, what's known into opinion, so I want to make that clear. But my opinion is that there is a lot that we can learn, you know, again, in terms of principles. We have to do this in a modern way. We're not going to, you know, exactly copy what people did, but we're going to say, wait a minute. There might, you know, with our technology, is there a way we can go after some of this same things in our way?

>> Sure. And speaking of opinion, you allude in the book to a pretty significant I don't know if it's a divide but at least a debate in the world of anthropologists and geographers regarding even now. How to view the people's particularly of Central America and South America. What would you say are the competing views of those civilizations?

>> Well, I, you know, there's a lot of different, I mean, archeology is a contentious field. And so there's a lot of different disputes about that, you know, ranging from a big one is, you know, were they awful, you know, because of things like human sacrifice. How should one think about that? Another one is, you know, that is where the population centers were. How many people were lived there and how were they conquered if there were so many people there? So there's so but I'm thinking that you must be - another one is, you know, how did they feed themselves? And, you know, there was a whole variety of different ways that they employed. What was actually the backbone of feeding these largescale societies? So there's just, you know, this is a field with no shortage of arguments. So I'm happy to go into any one of them. Which ones were you thinking about most particularly?

>> Yeah, the one that I'm thinking of is probably the size of the population and the scale of localized civilization, the scale of cities and agriculture particularly in Central and South America.

>> Well, so that was one of the most densely populated parts of the world, you know, when the Spaniards arrived. And I don't think there's much argument about that, anymore. But exactly how many people there? There's two famous demographers, well, you know, famous in the world of demography, named Cook and Borah who did some large-scale studies of this in the 1960s. And thought that there were about, if memory serves, about 30 million people in Central Mexico, alone. Which is an extraordinarily large amount for the world of, you know, 1500, in that small area. And they were, you know, largely ruled by what's been called the Aztec Empire, which is a collection of three allied city-states. And it's probably better to call them something like the triple alliance, which is closer to what they called themselves. In which the dominant member was Tenochtitlan, this extraordinary city that was built like Venice in the middle of a lake on all these islands in Central Mexico. And it was like Venice, as I said, except it had a population of about 200,000, general is the typical estimates, you know, somewhere between 100 and 200,000. And Venice's population at its height was about 90,000. So it's like Venice but much, much bigger, much cleaner, also. The Spaniards who went there constantly remarked on how clean it was. It was, you know, by contrast, Madrid in those days had a population of about 40,000. So you can see it was just a gigantic place and so how did it feed itself? And one of the remarkable innovations they had is they took the mock up from the sort of brackish lake that was created. It was in a basin surrounded by mountains. They had this swamp. They turned it into a lake, and then they took all the muck, and they piled it up, and they created these sort of agricultural islands called chinampas with this super-rich soil. And they were absolutely fantastically productive. So that was one way that they fed themselves with these floating just so to speak farms, you know, that surrounded the city. But they also had maize fields, you know, corn fields everywhere, and these were irrigated especially along the west of Mexico by these irrigation systems that were some of the oldest in the world. And there's some of them that are, you know, 7-8,000 years old. And they created these very productive, you know, agricultural systems that, you know, may have been more important even than the chinampas. And then finally, further up north, you had agroforestry practiced on a large scale where you had tree crops that were managed largely by fire. So you - so that the record is - and that's really quite striking, is that for these 30 million people, famine certainly existed in your bad years, you know, just as there were everywhere else. But there's many, many fewer of them in from the historical records, which are pretty good, you know, in the two or 300 years before Europeans arrived. Then in those equivalent two or 300 years in Europe. And if you would like some really depressing reading, you can read Fernand Braudel's masterwork, Civilization and Capitalism. Where he describes, you know, he sort of counts up the number of famines in Europe in, you know, the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th centuries. And there is, you know, put, on average, there was a large-scale famine in Europe every ten years. And that just simply wasn't the case because of this, well, you know, super-diverse system that they had in Mesoamerica.

>> Mm-hmm. Well, I think you mentioned in the book that there are some of these cultures are the ones that we associate with having a lot of gold and you make the point that they did not see the gold as valuable. Can you talk about that?

>> Sure. They thought it was pretty.

>> Yeah, right.

>> You know, right, and one of the striking things is that in the Andes, especially, Andes are full of, you know, precious metals, you know, particularly silver, but they also had gold. And so the Inca liked gold but they - and they had this entire elaborate system metalwork, but it was not as a species of value. It was just this really cool stuff. And so the central Cuzco, which is the capital of the Inca, had this Haukaypata, this huge plaza with this white, white sand brought in from the - from the ocean. And then it was surrounded by buildings that were constructed at slopes that were sheathed in gold leaf. And so you can imagine the light. You know, it was in this high place up 9,000 feet, this place surrounded by gold leaf and white sand. It must have been absolutely spectacular.

>> Yeah.

>> And they - but on the other hand, they were completely bewildered by the fact that Europeans, you know, would like fight and kill for this stuff. You know, to them, it would be like, I don't know. Can you imagine groups of people coming in, and invading the United States, and going to all the hardware stores, and looting all the paint, right? You'd say like why would you invade the country and take paint? And that just wasn't what they used as a system of value.

>> Mm-hmm. And there was pretty widespread commerce. How far through the Americas were these groups trading with each other?

>> It's a sense of - and this is just something that people do. You know, they trade in widespread ways. And so the biggest city in north of the Rio Grande for a long time was Cahokia and that's right across the Mississippi from St. Louis. You know, it's near that junction of - it's at the Mississippi and, you know, the junction of some major rivers. And it - and there's these medallions that rich people wore and they would have, let me see, they had copper from Canada, you know, Lake Superior. They had shell mother of pearl from the mouth of the Mississippi. They had mica from the Rocky Mountains. And I forget what was from the east side. But the point is that they had goods from the entire spread of North America that would be in these sort of badges that wealthy people wore. And that would be an example of the kind of there was an actual trade in mica from, you know, the Rocky Mountains across the entire plains to Cahokia. And there was trade up and down the Mississippi River. And that's the same thing is true in Central America. In fact, the way that the Spaniards first learned about the Inca Empire, which is the empire of the Andes, is when a ship, you know, a trading ship from the Inca showed up off the Mexican coast. And the Spaniards went, "Whoa!" You know, and it was a completely different kind of ship [inaudible]. It was made out of balsa wood and it had this kind of flexible shell, and, you know, everything about it was different than theirs. But they recognized what it was and they chased after it and they found all this stuff on it that people were trading and, you know, they said, "Anybody that can do that, we want to be interested in." And so they went after them.

>> At the time that Europeans started to make contact, had there already been some disease progression? I guess I think now's a good time to shift into what caused the demise largely of all of these different groups. I feel like I remember from the book that the disease, in some places, preceded the, you know, the larger scale arrival of people.

>> Of Europeans, you mean.

>> Of Europeans moving through these different, you know, geographic regions. Was that the case?

>> Yes. The, you know, it certainly happened. The most well-documented case is that there was small pox, which is this very awful disease which fortunately we have vaccines for, you know, rose up in Mexico City in the 1760s. And by that time, horses, which were - did not exist in the Americas at the time that the Europeans arrived and Europeans brought over horses, quickly lost control of them. And by the 1760s, they're all over the place. And so horses meant essentially that it's just much, much easier for a single person to travel a long distance than it was in the past. And so it also, unfortunately, meant that people who were sick could, you know, they were --

>> Travel fast, as well.

>> Disease would break out, yeah, that people would slee [assumed spelling] the disease and then carry it. And so there's amazing book called Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn. It tracks this epidemic and it goes up from Mexico City straight up all the way to Canada and goes into the Pacific Northwest. So that by the 1780s, it's depopulating Canada. And the first large-scale European exploration of Puget Sound, which, you know, the northwest corner of what's now the United States, is led by its Captain Vancouver. And they find essentially skeletons and bodies on the shore from people who have recently died of small pox. And this kind of thing happened again and again as these diseases would push out into areas where they were before Europeans. It certainly made European conquest much, much easier.

>> Right, and this sounds like this pretty much happened everywhere in North America, Central America, I mean all of the coasts of North America, Central, and South America. What else was moving through the people that was a novel disease besides small pox or was it mostly small pox that wiped them out?

>> No, small pox is the worst, but one of the things that had happened is that the Americas were initially settled by a relatively small group of people who passed through the Arctic. And it's difficult for diseases to come along with them, you know. And so you don't want to say that the Americas were a disease-free paradise, but it is also true that the great majority of the common killers didn't exist in the Americas until Europeans brought them. And so in the first 150, 200 years after Europeans arrived, it was as if all the suffering and death that those diseases had caused in Europe, and Asia, and America. Were compressed into this 200-year period. And it was the worst demographic catastrophe in the, you know, as far as is known in human history. It was a catastrophe in every way and it was awful. And so you had, you know, influenza. You had measles. You had small pox. You had brucellosis. You had cholera. You had, you know, just the list of these things goes on, and on, and on, and they all came over from Europeans. And I would argue that this was the single most important part of why Europeans were able to conquer the Americas. And there's a kind of a natural experiment. And I'm talking about this very abstractly, so humans weren't involved, and, you know, we're not talking about human suffering, and human diseases, and so forth, and I hope that's okay. I mean, but, you know, I'm talking like as if it's numbers rather than actual people. But I think you can get, you know, to try to make a point --

>> Well, sure. Well, even apply that in the present. I mean, we here that 50,000 people died overseas somewhere and it's just a number even though we recognize in our head that those are real persons just like me, and my neighbor, and my kids who all died.

>> Right. And so, exactly, exactly. So the first, you know, attempt by Europeans to settle the East Coast of, well, you know, what's now the United States, was in 1526. And there was a guy named Ayllon. That's a Spaniard who went and I think it was South Carolina. And it was a total failure and the Native people there kicked him out. And there were numerous other attempts, 20 or so, before the first sort of marginally successful one, which was Jamestown in, you know, in 1607. And that one came - I mean, they were abandoning it. They came within hours of being abandoned and only in the fact that it was - they tried over, and over, and over, again, by keep sending people over who died. More than 80% of the original inhabitants of Jamestown died. That's hardly what we would call a success. So the first really there's just and the same thing happens in Quebec, which is the other example. But essentially, none of these attempts succeed because people die because they don't know how to feed themselves or the Native people there get tired of them and kick them out. Until there's a first epidemic which is in 1617 in Massachusetts. And then there's - thereafter, there's more, and after that, all the European efforts to colonize essentially succeed. And so before the epidemics, very, very low success rate. After the epidemics, very, very high. And so to me, this is like an indication of what the rule is. And is otherwise, it's difficult to explain how small groups of Europeans at the end of very long supply chains could survive and even thrive in ecosystems that were completely unfamiliar to them.

>> Right, and with peoples that were not culturally inferior. I think was one of my revelations in reading the book as an average American who had, you know, whatever view of Indians has been presented through, you know, the kind of history you get at school. You know, they're - they say that history gets written by those who win. You know, we have a view of the Europeans that's maybe higher than it ought to be. And a view of the Native Americans that they encountered as probably being lower. And so we have this idea that there was a, you know, a cultural superiority in terms of organization, and weaponry, and, you know, food, hygiene, you name it. But you describe, you know, pretty vividly in the book that it was almost the exact opposite.

>> Yeah, I mean, and it's not that surprising the people in the Americas had had thousands of years to come up with technology that was appropriate to their situation. And, you know, that's what people everywhere do. And another thing is that, you know, different cultures tend to, for whatever reason, develop different types of technology. And part of the reason that we sort of overestimate European technology, I think there's two reasons. One is in, you know, growing up, in my mind, technology meant gears, and wheels, and things like that, you know, metal stuffs that does stuff. And so I looked and the Europeans had steel and the Europeans had clocks. And I say, ah-ha. They're, you know, ahead. It didn't occur to me that things like that we were talking about, that chinampas are a kind of technology, right? That you can have biological technology. And, you know, a very crude way to summarize the different, you know, immense differences between what was going on in Europe and what was going on in the Americas. Is to say that Europeans tended to be good at, you know, wheels, and gears, and that kind of technology. And --

>> Gadgets, yeah.

>> Yeah, gadgets, which is sort of a dismissive way of putting it, but and the people over here tended to be better at what you could call biologic or ecological technology. And what would have been great if both sides had enriched the other, but it didn't work out that way. The second thing is that, you know, when we think about, well, we say the Europeans had guns. And, you know, at least when I think of a gun, I think, you know, of a, you know, the rifle, you know, my grandfather's 22, right?

>> Right.

>> But that was completely unlike what Europeans actually were carrying, you know, the European, you know, the, you know, Cortez invaded with 19 cannons. All of them were made out of iron. All of them rusted to unusability within a couple of weeks because they were not meant to go through --

>> The tropics.

>> The tropics, right?

>> Yeah.

>> They had metal armor. They discarded the metal armor and soon Europeans wore the kind of cloth armor that the people in Central America did which absorbed shocks, you know, so and on and on. Similarly, the - we think of the European swords. European swords had real trouble with rusting. The - and they were not as sharp as the obsidian tip - they were called macuahuitls. If I pronounced that right, I don't know. And I've seen them and they're these sort of flat, wooden clubs with these razor-sharp, jagged edges around them. And there's clear descriptions in Spanish accounts that they were so heavy and sharp that they could cut off the horse - head of a horse with a single blow.

>> Oh, wow.

>> And they were feared. They were brittle. That was the weakness to them. So, you know, one was brittle, the other rusted, you know. There were defects in both. So that that kind of technological superiority in weaponry is confused if we imagine, you know, in the back of our minds, that they were using modern weapons. Instead of unrifled, you know, fuse-driven kind of things that you - that were heavy enough that you had to put on stands, you know, all that stuff, you had to do that. Now in the late-19th century, they started to - Europeans started to get modern rifles and those were really much better than bows and arrows, but not until then.

>> And probably only beginning to approximate the accuracy and, you know, deadliness of the bows and arrows. You know, which we, you know, we - I think even that, we underestimate likely what they had access to. It'd be maybe more like a sniper rifle, you know, than a backyard toy.

>> Yeah, exactly, right, exactly. And you have to remember, also, that part of in many of the Native cultures growing up as a boy, you spent an incredible amount of time training on these things. As you were expected to hunt, to be good at using them. That was just not the case. You know, the pilgrims, I actually am descended from some of them. You know, they lived in Leiden, and they were shopkeepers, and they were, you know, they did fine things but they were not trained from birth in the use of weaponry. And so the soldiers, so to speak, on each side were not equivalent. And you give a really good archer who's been working - doing it since birth, you know, facing off against somebody with a 16th-century gun who's hardly ever used it. You know, they over and over, again, Native people proved they're superior. There's a new book that's just come out, sort of a military history of this, called - by Pekka Hamalainen, called Indigenous Continent. And he just lists how often Europeans lost these battles. Naturally, we like to focus on the ones that Europeans won, but, you know, if you add them up impartially, it was a much more even fight until the diseases came in.

>> Mm-hmm. And what happened then?

>> When the diseases came in, you know, and they would kill a third of the people or [inaudible], we saw it was disaster. I mean, we saw what happened in the United States just the last couple of years with a disease that was much, much less dangerous.

>> Milder, yeah.

>> Yeah, than small pox or untreated measles, which bear in mind, is what you had in those days, will kill something like five to 10% of the people who get it, kids. And small pox can be up to 40%. So you're dealing with just enormous loss of life. Here, we lost a million people, and society was shut down for two years, and there's crazy political disputes, and so forth. And it was actually in terms of giant pandemics, a pretty mild one, which is sort of an awful thing to say to the million people who lost their loved ones, but it was a mild pandemic.

>> Right. Right, whereas these diseases that were sweeping across both continents in this hemisphere were taking out 70 to 90% of the people?

>> Yeah, oh, but again, it was like repeated assaults. So first, you know, there might be measles, then there might be small pox, then there might be influenza, then there might be, you know, cholera. Then there might be - and so forth. And so, you know, it was just a continual assault on those --

>> Wave on wave.

>> Yeah, it was just awful.

>> This concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Charles Mann. Make sure you are subscribed to the podcast for Episode 96 and the second half of our conversation. Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an e-mail to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering range-line managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey of This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the U.S.D.A. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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Mentioned Resources

You can follow Charles C Mann on his Twitter page,

1491 is available from the usual booksellers. The link here to 1491 is, a good website for finding new or slightly used books at better prices than full retail.

Also mentioned in this episode are Charles's books 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. In episode 96 we discuss Mann's most recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet, contrasting the philosophical approaches to agriculture and natural resources conservation represented by Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.

Charles recommended Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775, by Elizabeth A Fenn. And Indigenous Continent: the Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen

Also mentioned were Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe and The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, both by Alfred Crosby.

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