Precolumbian Indians

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Most people first learn about Native Americans in their American history classes. They learn about the arrival of British settlers in the 17th century, and how they interacted violently, and sometimes non-violently, with the indigenous groups. Later on in the course, they learn about how President Andrew Jackson forcefully relocated the Cherokee Indians in the “Trail of Tears.” Rarely do classes broach the subject of pre-Columbian America, a time when the combined population of North and South America may have become as large as 112 million (Mann, 1491, 94). Since the very moment that Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the lives of Native Americans began to change dramatically. In order to fully appreciate the world we live in now, we must understand how much it has changed and why. Furthermore, by studying the people who, for thousands of years, greatly changed their environment in a non-destructive manner, we may learn a great deal about how to more effectively manipulate our environment without destroying it. This essay seeks to broaden and deepen the general public’s knowledge and appreciation for Native American history by increasing students’ exposure to the subject matter in world history and U.S. history courses. Firstly, this paper provides the Amazon region as an example to explain the merit of educating our children about the history of the Americas. Secondly, this paper puts forward a plan of where and how to supplement current curricula with more Native American history. Finally, this paper discusses two ongoing debates among scholars concerning the origins and populations of humans in the Americas.

One of the most widespread misconceptions about Native Americans is that, prior to the arrival of Columbus, they lived nomadically, like “Stone Age tribespeople,” in an untamed wilderness (Mann, 1491, 304). In his book 1491, Charles Mann refers to this belief as Holmberg’s Mistake. Holmberg’s Mistake, says Mann, is, “the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state,” (Mann, 1491, 12). The term is named after a researcher, Allan Holmberg, who wrote a book about the Sirionó tribe, in which he described them as always having been nomads and backwards. What the researcher didn’t know was that influenza and smallpox had wiped out so much of the population that the survivors were forced to mate with relatives. What many Europeans viewed as a savage and backwards lifestyle was largely a result of European diseases that forced many Indians to drastically change their lifestyle. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, however, Indian groups had successfully developed a wide range of ways to modify their environment to fit their needs.

One of the more intriguing examples of how Indians reshaped their environment over time appears in the Amazonian region. About half of Amazonia is made up by rainforest (Mann, 1491, 286). Although the rainforest is, “uniquely diverse and beautiful,” factors such as, “intense rain and heat of the forest,” deplete the soil in this region of nearly all nutrients. Because of this, ecologists sometimes refer to the rainforest as a “wet desert” (Mann, 1491, 286). Scientists such as Betty Meggers used this fact to conclude that there were never any complex societies in the region. According to Meggers’ law of environmental limitation of culture, such poor soil prevented the Indians from being able to sustain a large, complex society (Mann, 1491, 290). Instead, Meggers argues, Indians lived in small groups and survived using slash-and-burn techniques, just as many do today. However, other evidence provides another possibility, and suggests that Meggers may have committed her own version of Holmberg’s mistake. The major problem with Meggers’ conclusions concerns the assumption that the Amazonian natives traditionally lived in small groups and survived off of the slash-and-burn technique. More recent evidence indicates that Meggers’...
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