3 questions and 3 myths about the Americas before Columbus arrived

Posted October 10

Where are the oldest mummies in the world? Though many people would say "Egypt" the right answer is the Chinchorro mummies of Peru and Chile.

Where is the largest pyramid in the world? Again, many people would say "Egypt" but the right answer is The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Puebla, Mexico.

Where was one of the largest cities on earth in 1520? Startlingly the answer is Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, with a population of several hundred thousand.

The answers to these and many other questions about the Americas before Columbus are tantalizingly and generally not known to most people.

Thoughts about what the Americas were like before Columbus are often dominated by myths. However the reality is far more interesting.

Myth 1: The New World was essentially uninhabited when Old Worlders arrived.

Reality: The New World may have been populated with as many as 100 million people before Columbus. Old World diseases may have wiped out 95 percent of the population.

Myth 2: New World humans never created long-term sustainable civilizations.

Reality: Two of the world’s oldest independently developed civilizations emerged in the Americas: Ancient Mesoamerican civilization (which is typically well-known) and the lesser known, but much older, Norte Chico civilization on the Peruvian coast. Each of these American civilizations developed agriculture, stratified society, monumental buildings, and forms of recording keeping.

Myth 3: New World humans never altered the North and South American landscape.

Reality: Evidence exists in both North and South America of long-term and deliberate management of the land. As the Amazon rain forest has fallen to modern development, startling evidence has emerged of hundreds of towns and villages connected by road systems, according to this article from New Scientist. That is, the Amazon rain forest had previously fallen to human hands in the past for the development of civilization. In Peru, there is extensive ancient terracing of hillsides. In North America, the Indians regularly burned forests to flush out animals, clear out vegetation and restart the vegetative life-cycle.

These myths and questions, and many others, are discussed and laid bare in the book "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles Mann.

Though originally published in 2005, Mann’s book "1491" is still essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the expansive, teeming realities of the human experience in North and South America before Columbus arrived. This book pays significant dividends for expanding one’s historical perspective and empathy for the realities of the New World before Columbus.

Taylor Halverson holds Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology. He is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is at His views are his own.


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