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A whole new world

What Columbus and other explorers found was not wilderness but a variety of large, sophisticated societies

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
Knopf, 465 pp., illustrated, $30

In 1539, the Spanish warrior Hernando de Soto landed near Tampa Bay with a few hundred soldiers and marched west across what is now the US South. They didn't find the gold they were looking for, but they found plenty of company -- bustling towns and farms, flotillas of canoes carrying thousands of Indians, a land ''thickly set with great towns," wrote de Soto, each surrounded by earthen walls, moats, and armies of archers. The Spaniards were filthy and homesick and they terrorized everyone they met with their guns and horses, but they weren't hungry. Corn and beans grew everywhere, and they were never shy about barging into towns to demand food and slaves.

A century later, the French explorer La Salle passed through the same area and found nothing. Descending the Mississippi, he drifted 200 miles through an empty wilderness without encountering a single Indian village. Instead, he found millions of buffalo. Where did the buffalo come from, and where did the people go?

Charles Mann gives the best answers we are likely to get to these questions in ''1491," his fascinating inquiry into how people lived in the Americas before Europeans arrived and why some of the world's most sophisticated societies collapsed so fast. In the last 20 years, scholarship has overturned most of what we thought about pre-conquest life, and Mann synthesizes the changes with clarity and authority.

It's now clear that when Columbus crashed into the Bahamas, there were more people living in the Americas than in Europe, and they probably had been living here longer. Far from the roving bands of hunters and berry gatherers depicted in textbooks as recently as the 1980s (with exceptions for Incas and Aztecs), most Indians lived on farms, many lived in cities as big as London or Madrid, and everywhere they had tamed the natural landscape into an inviting mix of orchards, fish ponds, gardens, and game preserves.

When Europeans did come, it wasn't their atrocities that finished off the Indians, manifold though these were. It was the diseases, especially smallpox, that wiped out as much as 95 percent of the population in parts of the Andes, Mexico, and the Great Plains. Historians have long known that European plagues devastated native society, but Mann shows how they ripped through the Americas with a speed and totality only now brought into focus with new excavations and fresh analysis of colonial death records. Disease, probably carried by de Soto's 300 pigs, wiped out the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley in his wake, Mann explains. Assiduous Indian management had kept down the number of buffalo, but with the Indians dead, the animals were free to breed and run roughshod over the landscape. By then no one was around to remember the society that had thrived before, so a mythic image of wilderness and giant herds took hold.

All over the Americas, the story was repeated. Mann assembles an impressive array of recent archeological work, long-neglected colonial accounts, and his own keen observations to argue that people had settled and cultivated nearly all of the Amazon basin for centuries. ''Numerous and very large settlements and very pretty country and very fruitful land," wrote a Spanish explorer in 1542, describing the banks of the Amazon. Not the way you would describe an untouched jungle. Soon smallpox did its work, and the Indian fruit groves and manioc plantations were taken over by the forest we see today.

Mann stumbles a bit. After showing convincingly that our image of virgin wilderness in the Amazon is a myth, he tries to turn the evidence against ''European and U.S. environmentalists [who] insist that the forest should never be cut down or used." I'm not sure which environmentalists he's talking about; the ones I know want nothing of the sort.

But I'm quibbling. Mann has written a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin one after the other, such as that of the Pilgrims finding a pristine world of woodlands and guileless natives. Hundreds of European ships had visited the crowded New England coast by the time the Pilgrims arrived, and the indigenous Massachusett had long been trading with the visitors. Mann brings empathy, drama, and a well-calibrated sense of humor to his descriptions of their first, fumbling contacts.

Still, the image of the Pilgrims arriving on deserted shores has a chilling kind of truth. By 1620, the Indians had been exterminated by European disease, their towns in tatters and their farms abandoned.

Mann, a correspondent for Science magazine, scrupulously cedes the floor to archeologists and historians who don't agree with the view that Indians were much more numerous and advanced than we ever conceived. His characters are vividly drawn, like George McJunkin, the New Mexico ranch foreman born a slave in the South before the Civil War, who taught himself natural history well enough to recognize the huge bones he saw protruding from a ravine as those of extinct mammals. His discovery set in motion the events that led to the Clovis consensus, the view that the first Americans were big-game hunters who migrated from Siberia about 14,000 years ago. Now that version is under pressure from researchers alleging much earlier dates.

It would be wrong to call this book revisionist, as Mann notes, because what he has done is resurrect a view of indigenous American civilization that the first wave of Europeans shared. The real story of Indians in America was there all the time, waiting to be dug out from under the rock pile of 20th-century ethnocentrism, assumption, and inertia.

Roger Atwood, author of ''Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World," lives in Venezuela.

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