The Truth About Native Americans before Europeans Arrived | The Old New World


Hello Internet, Archaeologists are finding that the Americas before Columbus were very different than we initially believed. New discoveries in a wide variety of fields are finding that long standing concepts of the pre-Colombian world are very different from what we thought. So what has changed? First of all, the population of the Americas was way higher than even the most generous estimates we had before, and earlier than we thought. There was not simply one migration over the Bering strait, but many migrations, and not all of them over the land bridge. Some of them came from Polynesia, which I discuss here, and some came by boat. The estimates now put the pre-contact population of the Americas as high as 100 million people. Our earlier estimates of when the first Humans came to the Americas comes from carbon dating of the earliest human remains we can find. However, doing these tests again as well as genetics of those living in Siberia show that the 13,000 year ago estimate might be off by as much as 10,000 years. We think that the exposure to European diseases moved ahead of the Europeans, and gave them a warped view of what populations were like in the Americas. We also now believe that diseases played a bigger role in the decline of native societies than warfare with Europeans. For example, people for a long time thought that horses helped Francisco Pizarro beat the Incas. When you look at where the Incas lived, up in the mountains relying on stairways, you immediately see the issue here. Second, the level of cultural advancement and the settlement range of native groups was much larger than we thought. Partly to blame is that many innovations came from Mesoamerica, or modern day Mexico, but their geographic isolation meant that not a ton of their technologies left the region. That inability to share ideas, and access to large beasts of burden hindered many developments that Eurasians had access to. Take for example our ideas about guns. We commonly think that the European colonists bringing guns gave them a huge advantage. In fact, natives mocked these noisemakers, which were loud, cumbersome, and much harder to aim than a bow and arrow. The famous John Smith yes THAT John Smith, wrote that “the awful truth…it [gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.” Another great example would be the genetic miracle that is corn. Maize developed from an inedible grass, but native farmers genetically engineered it through selective breeding into the huge varieties of corn we have today. And if you don’t live in Latin America, you really don’t know just how many crazy cool varieties of corn have been developed. This led to the rise of civilizations like the Olmec. Other technologies of native societies surpassed what the Europeans had. Moccasins for example, were more comfortable, and sturdy than European boots. Everyone wanted them because the padding made them move silently which helped in hunting and war. Canoes were faster, and could maneuver better than any European small boats. Lastly, the new world was not the wilderness we imagined it was. Native groups across the Americas shaped the ecology to their benefit, mostly through the use of selective fires. Take the Mayans for example. Many blame their collapse on the overloading the carrying capacity of their environment, showing that they had huge impacts on their environment. There’s plenty of evidence that many Native groups used slash and burn techniques to shape the landscape for their needs. Burning down forests encouraged grasslands that could be cultivated, or attract game animals. They domesticated fewer animals, and cultivated plants in a different way than Europeans, but no less intensely. European settlers simply were unable to appreciate this. Likely due to language issues and good old fashioned racism. This had been going on for so long, that Natives became a keystone species in the ecosystem, and the mass deaths from disease actually led to huge ecological changes to the continent still happening today. Their decline likely led to large population explosions for bison and passenger pigeons, as well as the reforestation of most of the continent. All in time for Europeans to show up in a region and claim that the natives weren’t using the land. As the inspiration for this video Charles Mann said, they used the entire continent as a garden. These developments get me a special kind of excited. I became a historian because I get thrilled when I find out something we took for granted for centuries turns out to be a gross misunderstand of something far more amazing. I should also mention that this video is heavily inspired by Charles Mann’s amazing book 1491. If this blows your mind as much as it did mine, I could not recommend it more. I will see you guys next time. If you have any similar stories of your concepts of the world being turned completely around, let me know down in the comments. And be sure to subscribe for more history videos like this one.