For the woman in the next-door office—
Cloudlessly, like everything else





Native America, 1491 A.D.

Native America, 1000 A.D.

Massachusett Alliance, 1600 A.D.

Peoples of the Dawnland, 1600 A.D.

Tawantinsuyu: Land of the Four Quarters, 1527 A.D.

Tawantinsuyu: Expansion of the Inka Empire, 1438–1527 A.D.

Triple Alliance, 1519 A.D.

Paleo-Indian Migration Routes: North America, 10,000 B.C.

Norte Chico: The Americas’ First Urban Complex, 3000–1800 B.C.

Mesoamerica, 1000 B.C.–1000 A.D.

Wari and Tiwanaku, 700 A.D.

Moundbuilders, 3400 B.C.–1400 A.D.

The American Bottom, 1300 A.D.

The Hundred Years’ War: Kaan and Mutal Battle to Control the Maya Heartland, 526–682 A.D.

Amazon Basin

Humanized Landscapes, 1491 A.D.


The seeds of this book date back, at least in part, to 1983, when I wrote an article for Science about a NASA program that was monitoring atmospheric ozone levels. In the course of learning about the program, I flew with a research team in a NASA plane equipped to sample and analyze the atmosphere at thirty thousand feet. At one point the group landed in Mérida, in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. For some reason the scientists had the next day off, and we all took a decrepit Volkswagen van to the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá. I knew nothing about Mesoamerican culture—I may not even have been familiar with the term “Mesoamerica,” which encompasses the area from central Mexico to Panama, including all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, the homeland of the Maya, the Olmec, and a host of other indigenous groups. Moments after we clambered out of the van I was utterly enthralled.

On my own—sometimes for vacation, sometimes on assignment—I returned to Yucatán five or six times, three times with my friend Peter Menzel, a photojournalist. For a German magazine, Peter and I made a twelve-hour drive down a terrible dirt road (thigh-deep potholes, blockades of fallen timber) to the then-unexcavated Maya metropolis of Calakmul. Accompanying us was Juan de la Cruz Briceño, Maya himself, caretaker of another, smaller ruin. Juan had spent twenty years as a chiclero, trekking the forest for weeks on end in search of chicle trees, which have a gooey sap that Indians have dried and chewed for millennia and that in the late nineteenth century became the base of the chewing-gum industry. Around a night fire he told us about the ancient, vine-shrouded cities he had stumbled across in his rambles, and his amazement when scientists informed him that his ancestors had built them. That night we slept in hammocks amid tall, headstone-like carvings that had not been read for more than a thousand years.

My interest in the peoples who walked the Americas before Columbus only snapped into anything resembling focus in the fall of 1992. By chance one Sunday afternoon I came across a display in a college library of the special Columbian quincentenary issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Curious, I picked up the journal, sank into an armchair, and began to read an article by William Denevan, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin. The article opened with the question, “What was the New World like at the time of Columbus?” Yes, I thought, whatwas it like? Who lived here and what could have passed through their minds when European sails first appeared on the horizon? I finished Denevan’s article and went on to others and didn’t stop reading until the librarian flicked the lights to signify closing time.

I didn’t know it then, but Denevan and a host of fellow researchers had spent their careers trying to answer these questions. The picture they have emerged with is quite different from what most Americans and Europeans think, and still little known outside specialist circles.

A year or two after I read Denevan’s article, I attended a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Called something like “New Perspectives on the Amazon,” the session featured William Balée of Tulane University. Balée’s talk was about “anthropogenic” forests—forests created by Indians centuries or millennia in the past—a concept I’d never heard of before. He also mentioned something that Denevan had discussed: many researchers now believe their predecessors underestimated the number of people in the Americas when Columbus arrived. Indians were more numerous than previously thought, Balée said—much more numerous. Gee, someone ought to put all this stuff together, I thought. It would make a fascinating book.

I kept waiting for that book to appear. The wait grew more frustrating when my son entered school and was taught the same things I had been taught, beliefs I knew had long been sharply questioned. Since nobody else appeared to be writing the book, I finally decided to try it myself. Besides, I was curious to learn more. The book you are holding is the result.

Some things this book is not. It is not a systematic, chronological account of the Western Hemisphere’s cultural and social development before 1492. Such a book, its scope vast in space and time, could not be written—by the time the author approached the end, new findings would have been made and the beginning would be outdated. Among those who assured me of this were the very researchers who have spent much of the last few decades wrestling with the staggering diversity of pre-Columbian societies.

Nor is this book a full intellectual history of the recent changes in perspective among the anthropologists, archaeologists, ecologists, geographers, and historians who study the first Americans. That, too, would be impossible, for the ramifications of the new ideas are still rippling outward in too many directions for any writer to contain them in one single work.

Instead, this book explores what I believe to be the three main foci of the new findings: Indian demography (Part I), Indian origins (PartII), and Indian ecology (Part III). Because so many different societies illustrate these points in such different ways, I could not possibly be comprehensive. Instead, I chose my examples from cultures that are among the best documented, or have drawn the most recent attention, or just seemed the most intriguing.

Throughout this book, as the reader already will have noticed, I use the term “Indian” to refer to the first inhabitants of the Americas. No question about it, Indian is a confusing and historically inappropriate name. Probably the most accurate descriptor for the original inhabitants of the Americas is Americans. Actually using it, though, would be risking worse confusion. In this book I try to refer to people by the names they call themselves. The overwhelming majority of the indigenous peoples whom I have met in both North and South America describe themselves as Indians. (For more about nomenclature, see Appendix A, “Loaded Words.”)

In the mid-1980s I traveled to the village of Hazelton, on the upper Skeena River in the middle of British Columbia. Many of its inhabitants belong to the Gitksan (or Gitxsan) nation. At the time of my visit, the Gitksan had just lodged a lawsuit with the governments of both British Columbia and Canada. They wanted the province and the nation to recognize that the Gitksan had lived there a long time, had never left, had never agreed to give their land away, and had thus retained legal title to about eleven thousand square miles of the province. They were very willing to negotiate, they said, but they were not willing to not be negotiated with.

Flying in, I could see why the Gitksan were attached to the area. The plane swept past the snowy, magnificent walls of the Rocher de Boule Mountains and into the confluence of two forested river valleys. Mist steamed off the land. People were fishing in the rivers for steelhead and salmon even though they were 165 miles from the coast.

The Gitanmaax band of the Gitksan has its headquarters in Hazelton, but most members live in a reserve just outside town. I drove to the reserve, where Neil Sterritt, head of the Gitanmaax council, explained the litigation to me. A straightforward, level-voiced man, he had got his start as a mining engineer and then come back home with his shirtsleeves rolled up, ready for a lengthy bout of legal wrangling. After multiple trials and appeals, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1997 that British Columbia had to negotiate the status of the land with the Gitksan. Talks were still ongoing in 2005, two decades after the lawsuit first began.

After a while Sterritt took me to see ‘Ksan, a historical park and art school created in 1970. In the park were several re-created longhouses, their facades covered in the forcefully elegant, black-and-red arcs of Northwest Coast Indian art. The art school trained local Indians in the techniques of translating traditionally derived designs into silk-screen prints. Sterritt left me in a back room of the schoolhouse and told me to look around. There was more in the room than he may have realized, for I quickly found what looked like storage boxes for a number of old and beautiful masks. Beside them was a stack of modern prints, some of which used the same designs. And there were boxes of photographs, old and new alike, many of splendid artworks.

In Northwest Coast art the subjects are flattened and distorted—it’s as if they’ve been reduced from three dimensions to two and then folded like origami. At first I found all the designs hard to interpret, but soon some seemed to pop right out of the surface. They had clean lines that cut space into shapes at once simple and complex: objects tucked into objects, creatures stuffed into their own eyes, humans who were half beast and beasts who were half human—all was metamorphosis and surreal commotion.

A few of the objects I looked at I understood immediately, many I didn’t understand at all, some I thought I understood but probably didn’t, and some maybe even the Gitksan didn’t understand, in the way that most Europeans today can’t truly understand the effect of Byzantine art on the spirits of the people who saw it at the time of its creation. But I was delighted by the boldly graphic lines and dazzled by the sense that I was peeking into a vibrant past that I had not known existed and that continued to inform the present in a way I had not realized. For an hour or two I went from object to object, always eager to see more. In assembling this book, I hope to share the excitement I felt then, and have felt many times since.

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