1491: excerpts part 2

More from 1491 - New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Earlier posts here and here.
In 1994 Ruth Shady Solis, of the National University of San Marcos in Lima, began working fourteen miles inland from Aspero, at a site known as Caral. From the sandy soil emerged an imposing, 150-acre array of earthworks: six large platform mounds, one sixty feet tall and five hundred feet on a side; two round, sunken ceremonial plazas; half a dozen complexes of mounds and platforms; big stone buildings with residential apartments.

Haas and Creamer worked with the project in 2000 and helped establish Caral's antiquity: it was founded before 2600 B.C. While Shady continued work on Caral, Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz split off to investigate the Pitivilca, the next river to the north, and the Fortaleza, just north of the Pitivilca. They found, Haas told me, "major urban centers on a par with Caral in terms of monumental architecture, ceremonial structures, and residential architecture. And some of them were older."

Examination of Huaricanga and the surrounding communities is far from complete — Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz published their first findings in December 2004. They found evidence of people living inland from the coast as early as 9210 B.C. But the oldest date securely associated with a city is about 3500 B.C., at Huaricanga. (There are hints of earlier dates.) Other urban sites followed apace: Caballete in 3100 B.C., Porvenir and Upaca in 2700 B.C. Taken individually, none of the twenty-five Norte Chico cities rivaled Sumer's cities in size, but the totality was bigger than Sumer. Egypt's pyramids were larger, but they were built centuries later.

I asked Haas and Creamer where a race of alien visitors in, say, 3000 B.C. would have landed if they were searching for earth's most sophisticated society.

"I hate questions like that," Haas said, because they ask scientists to engage in the dubious enterprise of ranking cultures against each other on a scale.

"Wouldn't it depend on what the aliens thought was sophisticated?" Creamer asked. "I mean, who knows what they would think."

I asked them to indulge me.

"I know what you're getting at," Haas said, reluctantly. "In 3000 B.C. your aliens would have had a very limited number of options on the menu. And one of those options would have been the Norte Chico."

Because human beings rarely volunteer to spend their days loading baskets with heavy rocks to build public monuments, Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz argued that these cities must have had a centralized government that instigated and directed the work. In the Norte Chico, in other words, Homo sapiens experienced a phenomenon that at that time had occurred only once before, in Mesopotamia: the emergence, for better or worse, of leaders with enough prestige, influence, and hierarchical position to induce their subjects to perform heavy labor. It was humankind's second experiment with government.

* * * *

It has long been taught that civilizations arose around large-scale agriculture; because the oldest known civilizations did, it was postulated that all ancient civilizations developed along a similar path. It goes something like this. Foraging (hunter-gatherer) societies develop agriculture, which leads to a huge increase in the available food supply. More food leads to a huge increase in population. Society grows and stratifies. The elite organize the peasantry to work on large-scale public works projects, like irrigation systems, which in turn lead to more food, and more people.

Early civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China all developed with farming as the common cornerstone. But in Peru, farming was an afterthought. Thus it was believed Peru had no great early civilizations.

But an alternate theory has developed, referred to as the Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilizations, or MFAC. It proposes that there was little substinence agriculture around early Andean societies because those cultures were built around fishing, and that subsequent Peruvian cultures, including the Inca, originated not in the Andes but around the great coastal fisheries.

Mann describes MFAC as "a brick through the window of archaeological theory... Archaeologists had always believed that in fundamental respects all human societies everywhere were alike, no matter how different they might appear on the surface." The MFAC hypothesis was "radical and unwelcome" - but the evidence for it is massive, and cannot be dismissed.
Further evidence both for and against the MFAC hypothesis emerged in the mid-1990s, with Shady's pathbreaking work on the Supe River. (Aspero, one recalls, sat at the river's mouth.) Shady's team uncovered seventeen riverside settlements, the second-biggest of which was Caral. In her view, monumental buildings implied a large resident population, but again there were plenty of anchovy bones and little evidence that locals farmed anything but cotton. To Moseley, the fish bones suggested that the ample protein on the coast allowed people to go inland and build irrigation networks to produce the cotton needed to expand fishing production. The need for nets, in Haas's view, gave the inland cities the whip hand — Norte Chico was based on farming, like all other complex societies, although not on farming for food. Besides, he says, so many more people lived along the four rivers than on the shore that they had to have been dominant. Moseley believes that Aspero, which has never been fully excavated, is older than the other cities, and set the template for them. "For archaeology," deFrance said, "what may be important" in the end is not the scope of the society "but where it emerged from and the food supply. You can't eat cotton."

Evidence one way or the other may emerge if Moseley and Shady, as planned, return to Aspero. If they are correct, and Aspero turns out to be substantially older than now thought, it might win the title of the world's oldest city — the place where human civilization began. "Maybe we might actually stop people calling it the 'New World,'" Moseley joked.

There is also enormous disagreement among scientists of how the Mesoamericans developed maize. To call maize a staple crop is to undersell it. It was the foundation on which Mesoamerican society was based; it was life itself. But maize - as I learned from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel was not found in nature and then domesticated, as the world's other staple crops - rice, wheat and barley - were. Maize was a completely human invention. How that occurred is hotly debated, and Mann walks you through the various theories. Then he reminds you that for our purposes, which theory is correct doesn't matter.
From the historian's point of view, the difference between the two models is unimportant. In both, Indians took the first steps toward modern maize in southern Mexico, probably in the highlands, more than six thousand years ago. Both argue that modern maize was the outcome of a bold act of conscious biological manipulation — "arguably man's first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering," Nina V. Federoff, a geneticist at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in 2003.

Federoff's description, which appeared in Science, intrigued me. It makes twenty-first-century scientists sound like pikers, I said when I contacted her. "That's right," she said. "To get corn out of teosinte is so — you couldn't get a grant to do that now, because it would sound so crazy." She added, "Somebody who did that today would get a Nobel Prize! If their lab didn't get shut down by Greenpeace, I mean."

As Jared Diamond made several appearances for me while reading 1491, so did Michael Pollan. I don't mean Mann referred to either author (although Diamond is cited in Mann's gargatuan list of references). I mean themes I read about in those author's books surfaced here, too.
Indian farmers grow maize is what is called a milpa. The term means "maize field," but refers to something considerably more complex. A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once, including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jicama (a tuber), amaranth (a grain-like plant), and mucuna (a tropical legume). In nature, wild beans and squash often grow in the same field as teosinte, the beans using the tall teosinte as a ladder to climb toward the sun; below ground, the beans' nitrogen-fixing roots provide nutrients needed by teosinte. The milpa is an elaboration of this natural situation, unlike ordinary farms, which involve single-crop expanses of a sort rarely observed in unplowed landscapes.

Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks digestible niacin, the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, necessary to make proteins and diets with too much maize can lead to protein deficiency and pellagra, a disease caused by lack of niacin. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan, but not the amino acids cysteine and methionine, which are provided by maize. As a result, beans and maize make a nutritionally complete meal. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, "is one of the most successful human inventions ever created."

* * * *

One of the most fascinating parts of 1491 was the section on the Amazon. The Amazon is not the completely pristine rainforest most people believe it to be. It's very likely that the Yanomamo - people thought of as living as their pre-contact ancestors did, some of the earth's last hunter-gatherers - are in fact closer to the holocaust survivors I mentioned earlier.
More important, anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, and historians who were reassessing the environmental impact of indigenous cultures in North and Central America inevitably turned to the tropical forest. And in growing numbers researchers came to believe that the Amazon basin, too, bears the fingerprints of its original inhabitants. Far from being the timeless, million-year-old wilderness portrayed on calendars, these scientists say, today's forest is the product of a historical interaction between the environment and human beings — human beings in the form of the populous, long-lasting Indian societies described by Carvajal.

Such claims raise the hackles of many conservationists and ecologists. Amazonia, activists warn, is sliding toward catastrophe so rapidly that saving it must become a global priority. With bulldozers poised to destroy one of the planet's last great wild places, environmentalists say, claiming that the basin comfortably housed large numbers of people for millennia is so irresponsible as to be almost immoral — it is tantamount to giving developers a green light.

The Amazon is not wild, archaeologists and anthropologists retort. And claiming that it is will, in its ignorance, worsen the ecological ailments that activists would like to cure. Like their confreres elsewhere in the Americas, Indian societies had built up a remarkable body of knowledge about how to manage and improve their environment. By denying the very possibility of such practices, these researchers say, environmentalists may hasten, rather than halt, the demise of the forest.

. . . .

Unlike maize or manioc, peach palm can thrive with no human attention. Tragically, this quality has proven to be enormously useful. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many Amazonian Indians, the Yanomamo among them, abandoned their farm villages, which had made them sitting ducks for European diseases and slave trading. They hid out in the forest, preserving their freedom by moving from place to place; in what Balee calls "agricultural regression," these hunted peoples necessarily gave up farming and kept body and soul together by foraging. The "Stone Age tribespeople in the Amazon wilderness" that captured so many European imaginations were in large part a European creation and a historical novelty; they survived because the "wilderness" was largely composed of their ancestors' orchards. "These old forests, called fallows, have traditionally been classified as high forest (pristine forest on well-drained ground) by Western researchers," Balee wrote in 2003. But they "would not exist" without "human agricultural activities." Indeed, Amazonians typically do not make the distinction between "cultivated" and "wild" landscapes common in the West; instead they simply classify landscapes into scores of varieties, depending on the types of species in each.

Planting their orchards for millennia, the first Amazonians slowly transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In the country inhabited by the Ka'apor, on the mainland southeast of Marajo, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In Ka'apor-managed forests, according to Balee's plant inventories, almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food. In similar forests that have not recently been managed, the figure is only 20 percent. Balee cautiously estimated, in a widely cited article published in 1989, that at least n.8 percent, about an eighth, of the nonflooded Amazon forest was "anthropogenic" — directly or indirectly created by humans.


Larry Gambone said...

I read 1491 recently. Excellent work and as you mention it demolishes many myths. It now seems that highly developed societies - what used to be called "civilization" arose about the same time in both the Americas and Eurasia.

deang said...

That distinction between "wild" and "cultivated" really blurs when you look at high-population, complex indigenous societies in places like prehispanic California, where the land looked natural to the earliest European explorers, yet was maintained through ages-old regimens of burning, tilling, pruning, sowing of favored plants, etc, and managed to sustain both human and wildlife populations in great numbers. A book about the California region whose title addresses that very idea is Before the Wilderness, edited by Kat Anderson and Thomas Blackburn. (Anderson's Tending the Wild is also excellent.)

In the region I live in, Texas, indigenous people were known to consume agave hearts, white oak acorns, prickly pear fruits and pads, and many more plants, some of them, like the acorns and agave, requiring extensive processing. What amazes me the most is that local indigenous people ate the seed of a stinging plant called Bull Nettle (genus Cnidoscolus). The seed is enclosed in a capsule, which, like the entire plant, is protected by stinging hairs that, if touched, give you a chemical burn similar to that from a jelly fish. The seed itself, though, is delicious in a kind of earthy, nutty way. How did they learn it was edible?! I know they had millenia to find out, but still ...

For that matter (and I think this is covered in 1491), how did they learn to process cassava/manioc to make it edible, and how did they learn that the roots of a potentially poisonous nightshade that we now call potato were edible?

L-girl said...

Larry, cool, I'm glad you read it.

Dean, I was hoping you would add to what I posted, since I know this is an interest of yours.

For that matter (and I think this is covered in 1491), how did they learn to process cassava/manioc to make it edible, and how did they learn that the roots of a potentially poisonous nightshade that we now call potato were edible?

I have thought of this so many times, especially in relation to manioc. It's come up in so many books I've read - including several novels - and I've always thought, how did people learn this process of turning something poisonous into a staple? A lot of people must have sickened and died in the learning. Yet the plant didn't become permanently thought of as non-edible. So interesting.

Larry Gambone said...

I have another one for you - In the Amazon Basin the people use an herbal concoction known as ayahuasca or yage to have visions. The chief plant, a liana called bannisteriopsis caapi contains vision-inducing DMT. Trouble is there is an enzyme in the stomach that stops the action of the DMT. So the shamans found another plant that curtails the effect of the enzyme, mixed the two together and presto, visions! (got this after reading Wade Davis)

L-girl said...

presto, visions!