A GUIDED TOUR
Imagine, for a moment, an impossible journey: taking off in a plane from eastern Bolivia as I did, but doing so in 1000 A.D. and flying a surveillance mission over the rest of the Western Hemisphere. What would be visible from the windows? Fifty years ago, most historians would have given a simple answer to this question: two continents of wilderness, populated by scattered bands whose ways of life had changed little since the Ice Age. The sole exceptions would have been Mexico and Peru, where the Maya and the ancestors of the Inka were crawling toward the foothills of Civilization.
Today our understanding is different in almost every perspective. Picture the millennial plane flying west, from the lowlands of the Beni to the heights of the Andes. On the ground beneath as the journey begins are the causeways and canals one sees today, except that they are now in good repair and full of people. (Fifty years ago, the earthworks were almost completely unknown, even to those living nearby.) After a few hundred miles the plane ascends to the mountains—and again the historical picture has changed. Until recently, researchers would have said the highlands in 1000 A.D.were occupied by scattered small villages and one or two big towns with some nice stonework. But recent archaeological investigations have revealed that at this time the Andes housed two mountain states, each much larger than previously appreciated.
The state closest to the Beni was based around Lake Titicaca, the 120-mile-long alpine lake that crosses the Peru-Bolivia border. Most of this region has an altitude of twelve thousand feet or more. Summers are short; winters are correspondingly long. This “bleak, frigid land,” wrote the adventurer Victor von Hagen, “seemingly was the last place from which one might expect a culture to develop.” But in fact the lake is comparatively warm, and so the land surrounding it is less beaten by frost than the surrounding highlands. Taking advantage of the better climate, the village of Tiwanaku, one of many settlements around the lake, began after about 800 B.C. to drain the wetlands around the rivers that flowed into the lake from the south. A thousand years later the village had grown to become the center of a large polity, also known as Tiwanaku.
NATIVE AMERICA, 1000 A.D.
Less a centralized state than a clutch of municipalities under the common religio-cultural sway of the center, Tiwanaku took advantage of the extreme ecological differences among the Pacific coast, the rugged mountains, and the altiplano (the high plains) to create a dense web of exchange: fish from the sea; llamas from the altiplano; fruits, vegetables, and grains from the fields around the lake. Flush with wealth, Tiwanaku city swelled into a marvel of terraced pyramids and grand monuments. Stone breakwaters extended far out into Lake Titicaca, thronged with long-prowed boats made of reeds. With its running water, closed sewers, and gaudily painted walls, Tiwanaku was among the world’s most impressive cities.
University of Chicago archaeologist Alan L. Kolata excavated at Tiwanaku during the 1980s and early 1990s. He has written that by 1000 A.D. the city had a population of as much as 115,000, with another quarter million in the surrounding countryside—numbers that Paris would not reach for another five centuries. The comparison seems fitting; at the time, the realm of Tiwanaku was about the size of modern France. Other researchers believe this population estimate is too high. Twenty or thirty thousand in the central city is more likely, according to Nicole Couture, a University of Chicago archaeologist who helped edit the definitive publication of Kolata’s work in 2003. An equal number, she said, occupied the surrounding countryside.
Which view is right? Although Couture was confident of her ideas, she thought it would be “another decade” before the matter was settled. And in any case the exact number does not affect what she regards as the key point. “Building this enormous place up here is really remarkable,” she said. “I realize that again every time I come back.”
North and west of Tiwanaku, in what is now southern Peru, was the rival state of Wari, which then ran for almost a thousand miles along the spine of the Andes. More tightly organized and military minded than Tiwanaku, the rulers of Wari stamped out cookie-cutter fortresses and stationed them all along their borders. The capital city—called, eponymously, Wari—was in the heights, near the modern city of Ayacucho. Housing perhaps seventy thousand souls, Wari was a dense, alley-packed craze of walled-off temples, hidden courtyards, royal tombs, and apartments up to six stories tall. Most of the buildings were sheathed in white plaster, making the city sparkle in the mountain sun.
In 1000 A.D., at the time of our imaginary overflight, both societies were reeling from a succession of terrible droughts. Perhaps eighty years earlier, dust storms had engulfed the high plains, blackening the glaciers in the peaks above. (Ice samples, dug out in the 1990s, suggest the assault.) Then came a run of punishing dry spells, many more than a decade in duration, interrupted by gigantic floods. (Sediment and tree-ring records depict the sequence.) The disaster’s cause is still in dispute, but some climatologists believe that the Pacific is subject to “mega-Niño events,” murderously strong versions of the well-known El Niño patterns that play havoc with American weather today. Mega-Niños occurred every few centuries between 200 and 1600 A.D. In 1925 and 1926, a strong El Niño—not a mega-Niño, but one that was bigger than usual—blasted Amazonia with so much dry heat that sudden fires killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in the forest. Rivers dried up, their bottoms carpeted with dead fish. A mega-Niño in the eleventh century may well have caused the droughts of those years. But whatever the cause of the climatic upheaval, it severely tested Wari and Tiwanaku society.
Here, though, one must be careful. Europe was racked by a “little ice age” of extreme cold between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet historians rarely attribute the rise and fall of European states in that period to climate change. Fierce winters helped drive the Vikings from Greenland and led to bad harvests that exacerbated social tensions in continental Europe, but few would claim that the little ice age caused the Reformation. Similarly, the mega-Niños were but one of many stresses on Andean civilizations at the time, stresses that in their totality neither Wari nor Tiwanaku had the political resources to survive. Soon after 1000 A.D. Tiwanaku split into flinders that would not be united for another four centuries, when the Inka swept them up. Wari also fell. It was succeeded and perhaps taken over by a state called Chimor, which oversaw an empire that sprawled over central Peru until it, too, was absorbed by the Inka.
Such newly discovered histories appear everywhere in the Americas. Take the plane north, toward Central America and southern Mexico, into the bulge of the Yucatán Peninsula, homeland of the Maya. Maya ruins were well known forty years ago, to be sure, but among them, too, many new things have been discovered. Consider Calakmul, the ruin that Peter Menzel and I visited in the early 1980s. Almost wholly unexcavated since its discovery, the Calakmul we came to lay swathed in dry, scrubby vegetation that crawled like a swarm of thorns up its two huge pyramids. When Peter and I spoke to William J. Folan of the Universidad Autónoma de Campeche, who was just beginning to work at the city, he recommended that we not try going to the ruin unless we could rent a heavy truck, and not even to try with the truck if it had rained. Our visit to Calakmul did nothing to suggest that Folan’s advice was wrong. Trees enveloped the great buildings, their roots slowly ripping apart the soft limestone walls. Peter photographed a monument with roots coiled around it, boa constrictor style, five or six feet high. So overwhelming was the tropical forest that I thought Calakmul’s history would remain forever unknown.
Happily, I was wrong. By the early 1990s Folan’s team had learned that this long-ignored place covered as much as twenty-five square miles and had thousands of buildings and dozens of reservoirs and canals. It was the biggest-ever Maya polity. Researchers cleaned and photographed its hundred-plus monuments—and just in time, for epigraphers (scholars of ancient writing) had in the meantime deciphered Maya hieroglyphics. In 1994 they identified the city-state’s ancient name: Kaan, the Kingdom of the Snake. Six years later they discovered that Kaan was the focus of a devastating war that convulsed the Maya city-state for more than a century. And Kaan is just one of the score of Maya settlements that in the last few decades have been investigated for the first time.
A collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliances and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany, the Maya realm was home to one of the world’s most intellectually sophisticated cultures. About a century before our imaginary surveillance tour, though, the Maya heartland entered a kind of Dark Ages. Many of the greatest cities emptied, as did much of the countryside around them. Incredibly, some of the last inscriptions are gibberish, as if scribes had lost the knowledge of writing and were reduced to meaningless imitation of their ancestors. By the time of our overflight, half or more of what once had been the flourishing land of the Maya was abandoned.
Some natural scientists attribute this collapse, close in time to that of Wari and Tiwanaku, to a massive drought. The Maya, packed by the millions into land poorly suited to intensive farming, were dangerously close to surpassing the capacity of their ecosystems. The drought, possibly caused by a mega-Niño, pushed the society, already so close to the edge, over the cliff.
Such scenarios resonate with contemporary ecological fears, helping to make them popular outside the academy. Within the academy skepticism is more common. The archaeological record shows that southern Yucatán was abandoned, while Maya cities in the northern part of the peninsula soldiered on or even grew. Peculiarly, the abandoned land was the wettest—with its rivers, lakes, and rainforest, it should have been the best place to wait out a drought. Conversely, northern Yucatán was dry and rocky. The question is why people would have fled from drought to lands that would have been even more badly affected.
And what of the rest of Mesoamerica? As the flight continues north, look west, at the hills of what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Here are the quarrelsome city-states of the N˜ udzahui (Mixtec), finally overwhelming the Zapotec, their ancient rivals based in the valley city of Monte Albán. Further north, expanding their empire in a hot-brained hurry, are the Toltec, sweeping in every direction from the mile-high basin that today houses Mexico City. As is often the case, the Toltec’s rapid military success led to political strife. A Shakespearian struggle at the top, complete with accusations of drunkenness and incest, forced out the long-ruling king, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, in (probably) 987 A.D. He fled with boatloads of loyalists to the Yucatán Peninsula, promising to return. By the time of our plane trip, Quetzalcoatl had apparently conquered the Maya city of Chichén Itzá and was rebuilding it in his own Toltec image. (Prominent archaeologists disagree with each other about these events, but the murals and embossed plates at Chichén Itzá that depict a Toltec army bloodily destroying a Maya force are hard to dismiss.)
Continue the flight to what is now the U.S. Southwest, past desert farms and cliff dwellings, to the Mississippian societies in the Midwest. Not long ago archaeologists with new techniques unraveled the tragedy of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, which was once the greatest population center north of the Río Grande. Construction began in about 1000 A.D. on an earthen structure that would eventually cover fifteen acres and rise to a height of about a hundred feet, higher than anything around it for miles. Atop the mound was the temple for the divine kings, who arranged for the weather to favor agriculture. As if to lend them support, fields of maize rippled out from the mound almost as far as the eye could see. Despite this apparent evidence of their power, Cahokia’s rulers were setting themselves up for future trouble. By mining the forests upstream for firewood and floating the logs downriver to the city, they were removing ground cover and increasing the likelihood of catastrophic floods. When these came, as they later did, kings who gained their legitimacy from their claims to control the weather would face angry questioning from their subjects.
Continue north, to the least settled land, the realm of hunters and gatherers. Portrayed in countless U.S. history books and Hollywood westerns, the Indians of the Great Plains are the most familiar to non-scholars. Demographically speaking, they lived in the hinterlands, remote and thinly settled; their lives were as far from Wari or Toltec lords as the nomads of Siberia were from the grandees of Beijing. Their material cultures were simpler, too—no writing, no stone plazas, no massive temples—though Plains groups did leave behind about fifty rings of rock that are reminiscent of Stonehenge. The relative lack of material goods has led some to regard these groups as exemplifying an ethic of living lightly on the land. Perhaps, but North America was a busy, talkative place. By 1000 A.D., trade relationships had covered the continent for more than a thousand years; mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Mexico has been found in Manitoba, and Lake Superior copper in Louisiana.
Or forgo the northern route altogether and fly the imaginary plane east from the Beni, toward the mouth of the Amazon. Immediately after the Beni, one encounters, in what is now the western Brazilian state of Acre, another society: a network of small villages associated with circular and square earthworks in patterns quite unlike those found in the Beni. Even less is known about these people; the remains of their villages were discovered only in 2003, after ranchers clearing the tropical forest uncovered them. According to the Finnish archaeologists who first described them, “it is obvious” that “relatively high population densities” were “quite common everywhere in the Amazonian lowlands.” The Finns here are summing up the belief of a new generation of researchers into the Amazon: the river was much more crowded in 1000 A.D. than it is now, especially in its lower half. Dense collections of villages thronged the bluffs that line the shore, with their people fishing in the river and farming the floodplains and sections of the uplands. Most important were the village orchards that marched back from the bluffs for miles. Amazonians practiced a kind of agro-forestry, farming with trees, unlike any kind of agriculture in Europe, Africa, or Asia.
Not all the towns were small. Near the Atlantic was the chiefdom of Marajó, based on an enormous island at the mouth of the river. Marajó’s population, recently estimated at 100,000, may have been equaled or even surpassed by a still-nameless agglomeration of people six hundred miles upstream, at Santarém, a pleasant town that today is sleeping off the effects of Amazonia’s past rubber and gold booms. The ancient inhabitation beneath and around the modern town has barely been investigated. Almost all that we know is that it was ideally located on a high bluff overlooking the mouth of the Tapajós, one of the Amazon’s biggest tributaries. On this bluff geographers and archaeologists in the 1990s found an area more than three miles long that was thickly covered with broken ceramics, much like Ibibate. According to William I. Woods, an archaeologist and geographer at the University of Kansas, the region could have supported as many as 400,000 inhabitants, at least in theory, making it one of the bigger population centers in the world.
And so on. Western scholars have written histories of the world since at least the twelfth century. As children of their own societies, these early historians naturally emphasized the culture they knew best, the culture their readership most wanted to hear about. But over time they added the stories of other places in the world: chapters about China, India, Persia, Japan, and other places. Researchers tipped their hats to non-Western accomplishments in the sciences and arts. Sometimes the effort was grudging or minimal, but the vacant reaches in the human tale slowly contracted.
One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.