Why did America develop

America before Columbus : The underrated continent

It all ended and began when the old world met the new. An era that had lasted for thousands of years came to an end within a very short time, on the one hand. On the other hand, the world we live in today came into being. That moment in October 1492, when Christopher Columbus stepped onto the sandy beach on the small Caribbean island of Guanahani and thus entered the New World, marked the most important turning point in recent history.

With Columbus and the first wandering trips of the Spaniards across the strange island world of the Caribbean and along the bordering coasts of the American continent, not only new sea routes and countries were discovered. In Columbus' entourage, the European conquistadors and colonists prepared the ground that gave birth to a new world. What has often been misunderstood up to now: The discovery of America primarily caused the rapid demise of the old world that made up this double continent for a long time.

America was empty and untouched - so the myth

To this day, it is part of the myth of historiography centered on Europe to assume that the continents lying on the other side of the oceans - above all America, but also Australia - were empty regions and regions that were largely untouched by human influence for a long time. In fact, pre-Columbian America looked very different from what was previously imagined.

The Old World changed as soon as the New World was discovered. Tobacco and corn, potato and rubber, chilli and silver came from South America to Europe and Asia. But even more, with Columbus' arrival in America, a world familiar to millions of people went under. The knowledgeable American science journalist Charles C. Mann sketches in his award-winning book "1491", which is based on a revised new edition also in German as "America before Columbus" (Rowohlt Verlag, 720 pages, 29 € 95), an impressive portrait of pre-Columbian continent and opens up surprising insights into the way of life of the Native Americans.

Mann tells the story of this continent and its indigenous population along three theses. First, America was settled much earlier than assumed; therefore the Indian cultures are much older than expected. Second, the two Americas were much more densely populated, the Native Americans far more numerous; probably many millions of people lived on the entire double continent before the arrival of the colonists, more than in Europe at that time. And third, the indigenous cultures were much more developed and probably much better adapted to their environment; whereby they formed entire landscapes.

Long before the Spanish there were many highly developed cultures

In fact, researchers on the double continent, in the south of the USA as well as in the Amazon, are finding more and more evidence that America was settled several thousand years earlier than after the end of the last ice age. The fact that the continent was populated by up to 100 million people before Columbus' arrival may have had even more consequences. Long before the Inca Empire was destroyed by the Spaniards, a multitude of different, highly developed cultures with rich populations already existed in river valleys and on the desert edges in the north and south of Peru.

Over the past decades, archaeologists have not only continually moved the beginnings of this pre-Columbian civilization forward and repeatedly uncovered step pyramids under mounds of sand, rubble and rubble. These include evidence of prehistoric metropolises with monumental temple complexes that existed more than 5000 years ago, i.e. before the pyramids in Egypt.

Archaeological finds in the Amazon basin show that even this primeval forest region was by no means without a cultural settlement history. Rather, an estimated five to seven million people are likely to have lived in the Amazon region alone. Pre-Columbian arable cultures brought about innovative forms of land management there as well 3,500 years ago, which allowed large and networked settlements, with an apparently hierarchical, but certainly labor-division organized sedentary population.

The native inhabitants cleared the jungle - with fire

Equally important is the new knowledge that these indigenous people in the Amazon and elsewhere burned the rainforests over a long period of time and thus changed them considerably. When Columbus entered the New World, it was no longer an untouched wilderness. So America’s natives were by no means exemplary in ecological terms.

Instead of being nomadic dependent on big game hunting, they lived on regular farms. They built and populated some of the largest and richest cities in the world, not just in the Andes and Central America. In many places they have decisively shaped their habitat - especially those primeval forests that were considered untouched by the European colonists - and thus created a flourishing cultural landscape.

Even the supposedly impenetrable wilderness of the Amazon rainforest could be an artificial product. Archaeologists are increasingly seeing a mosaic of man-made or at least influenced small-scale landscapes with high biodiversity, especially of useful plants.

The dense settlement gave rise to fertile soils

More than 83 plant species, including many palm species, in particular pineapple, corn, cassava, sweet potato, tobacco and even cocoa were grown; the latter in Ecuador already 5300 years ago and thus 1500 years earlier than in Mexico. As a result of centuries of dense settlement and the cultivation of certain plants, especially along the main rivers and the great tributaries of the Amazon, thick layers of exceptionally fertile black soils emerged, the terra preta, in places with broken pieces of pottery, leftover food and charcoal, in the midst of barren jungle soils.

In some ways, the pre-Columbian Indian cultures were more developed than the European societies of their time. Researchers discover that the high cultures from Central America to the Andes had an agriculture that, thanks to effective cultivation of corn, for example, produced surpluses and enabled a population density that was unthinkable in Europe. And this largely without livestock, which for so long was considered a benchmark for higher cultural development.

These civilizations did not perish because of the guns of the conquerors from the Old World, but because of epidemics. Introduced by the Europeans, these spread in a devastating way after the first contacts. The natives of America had no resistance whatsoever to the diseases that were new in the New World, such as flu, hepatitis, typhus, measles and, above all, the rampant smallpox. The epidemics allowed a handful of armed men to colonize an entire continent in the first place, and they sparked the greatest demographic catastrophe of mankind. It is estimated that between two thirds and up to 90 percent of all indigenous people in North, Central and South America have been abducted. In the 15th and 16th centuries, entire areas were depopulated.

A global exchange of plants, fungi and parasites

What chain reactions the conquest of America also had, Charles Mann tells in the "1493" follow-up to his first book success. As "Columbus’ Erbe ", which had already been published in German (Rowohlt Verlag, 816 pages, 34 € 95), the book shows the ecological, economic and social consequences. The crossing of the Atlantic, later the Pacific, changed communities and habits all over the world; it led to an approximation of the world.

Charles Mann describes the interrelationships and facets of this global exchange of plants, fungi, parasites and viruses, of goods and knowledge. And this is supported by an impressive wealth of facts, against the background of which he expands his theses on the ecological and economic costs and benefits of this early globalization. Both books together are exciting reading, especially for the generation of modern globetrotters who feel at home all over the world more easily than anyone since Columbus’s times.

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