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Q&A with Charles Mann on Pre-Columbian America

As part of PERC’s Lone Mountain Forum, “Reconciling Economics and Ecology,” PERC board member Steven Hayward sat down with author Charles Mann to revisit contemporary understandings of pre-Columbian America. Mann is the acclaimed author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, as well as the recent article “The State of Species” in Orion Magazine. Watch a short video of the interview above or read the full interview below (lightly edited for clarity).  

Q: I think it might be fair to say that you’ve done more than anyone in recent years to challenge the popular view that Columbus represented the North American equivalent of the invasion of the Garden of Eden and the fall from Edenic paradise. I wonder what larger lessons people should take away from studying this story more closely as you have?

A: When I went to school, we learned that Indians had walked across the earth about 12,000 years ago, which is not that long ago as these things go, and they lived for the most part in these small scattered bands. When Columbus came to North America, the Indians had had such little impact on the environment that he walked into what for all intents and purposes was a wilderness. And now almost all researchers think that all three of these are wrong. The Indians were here for far longer than previously believed, in far greater numbers than previously believed, and they had far more environmental impact than previously believed. Which means many things. Both changing our understanding of our past which changes our understanding of our present, but particularly in regard to environmental issues. So many of our environmental laws are based on the idea that there is this baseline of 1492 with no human presence. Now we know that these ecosystems we are all concerned about evolved with people in them and with people affecting them for thousands and thousands of years.

Q: We think of this as the New World, but in fact as you argue this really in some ways is the Old World and Europe in some ways is the New World. 

A: Right. Much of Northern Europe was covered by ice for a long period of time. 10,000 to 12,000 years ago you couldn’t live in England because there were giant ice sheets on top, whereas the civilizations in Mesoamerica and South America were flourishing.

Q: Are there large, outstanding questions in this area?

A: Oh, huge ones. Now the problem is that it’s almost universally accepted that Indians were here for 17, 18, 19, maybe even 25,000 years and it would be very nice to know how they got here. Right now the main theory is that they came by boat. But the reason they have that theory is that all of the other theories seemed to have been proven wrong.

Q: We know from the archeological record that a lot of these pre-Columbian civilizations collapsed on their own before any Europeans arrived. What were some of the leading causes of the ups and downs of the pre-Columbian civilizations?

A: Civilizations all around the world rise and fall. And they typically do so for a variety of reasons. Relatively low on that list of reasons is environmental impact. Typically they tear themselves apart, through war, through unrest of all sorts. It’s a really interesting area and I’ll probably have to write another edition of the book soon. 

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