We call it the European Invasion but modern academics have a more anodyne term, “Columbian Encounter.” Whatever you call it, the civilizations invaded or encountered left physical evidence on the land that far exceeds what could have been done by Native Americans in the numbers commonly thought to have lived in 1492. The most conservative studies estimated the Indian population in all of Amazonia to have been only one or two million souls when the Spanish arrived. Writers in the 18th and 19th centuries—including writers of judicial opinions—claimed that Native Americans were few and knew nothing of the sophisticated farming techniques practiced by Europeans. Those claims, dominant in American colonial literature, are being destroyed by 21st century science.
Recently discovered evidence debunks the narrative used to justify the monumental land thefts begun by the Columbian Encounter. Everyone has heard the argument that there were very few Native Americans wandering around in mostly empty lands before Columbus arrived. Less commonly known but often brought up at the time to justify European encroachment was that farming is the highest and best use of land. Hunting and gathering can happen anywhere, which made it excusable to shove allegedly nomadic peoples aside.
We live in the time of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change and those of us who claim the change is a matter of measurement rather than of belief pay close attention to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. That measurement has been taken directly in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, every month since 1958. The alarming upward trend has driven the search for indirect measurement methods, cross-checked for accuracy, to yield CO2 concentrations going back before the Holocene (the entirely recent epoch of humans):
*ice core samples – Ice cores have layers just like tree rings, and in each layer tiny bubbles of air are trapped that can be measured for CO2 content. The layers are dated by counting them and by measuring radioactive materials that decay at a known rate.
*stomatal density – Stomata, the holes in leaves through which plants “breathe,” vary in number depending on the richness of CO2 of in the air. This hunger for carbon dioxide is why more plants mean less CO2 in the air, but more CO2 in the air means fewer stomata. Stomatal density can be measured in fossil plants.
*tree rings – As trees take up CO2, carbon containing three isotopes (atoms of the same element with differing mass) is deposited in their annual rings. The ratio of the isotopes can be used to infer the ratio in the atmosphere and not only the amount of CO2 but whether it came from fossil fuels.
With the climate change crisis driving methods for measuring CO2 in the air far into the past, scientists got interested whenever CO2 spiked up or down. One spike downward coincided with the Columbian Encounter. Earlier this year, a study showed there was a large enough drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide when Europe and the Americas collided to change the climate worldwide. The working hypothesis is that the CO2 went away because it was absorbed by the foliage that took over indigenous farms gone fallow when about 50 million people, farming 1.3 hectares per person, died as a result of the European Invasion.
Plants absorb CO2 out of the air. Just as the cause of an uptick in CO2 usually means burning on a vast scale—volcanic eruptions do it—CO2 disappearing usually means that plant life is increasing and sucking up CO2. The scientists researching the disappearance of CO2 from the air calculated how much new plant cover would be necessary to account for the drop. Testing the hypothesis that abandoned farms were the explanation demanded that scientists create a timeline from the arrival of the Spanish to the disappearance of carbon dioxide (thought to be caused by the disappearance of human beings).
Immunology studies suggest that human die-off from disease would take decades—the Columbian Encounter was neither the first nor the last mass die-off from disease in known history. Reaching maximum carbon uptake from newly fallow land was another roughly known number, 20-30 years. If the Spanish caused it, that would put the downward plunge in CO2 between 1550 and 1650, depending on how much farming was “slash and burn.” The tale told by the ice core samples put the peak of carbon sequestration in 1610.
The atmospheric CO2 study dealt blows to two myths, one having to do with how many people died in the foreign disease epidemics and the other something mentioned regularly in U.S. Indian law decisions: that the persons indigenous to the Americas were all hunter-gatherers and therefore had interests in the land inferior to the interests of proper farmers.
A new study published by Charles R. Clement and six co-authors in the August issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B also undermines the myth that the Americas were peopled by a tiny number of hunter-gatherers. Clements and his colleagues found physical corroboration of what the European eyewitnesses following Columbus claimed: the Amazon River watershed (Amazonia) was home to dense populations of Natives who grew more than enough food to feed themselves.
The geological evidence comes from measuring layers of Amazonian dark earths (ADEs), soils created by burning, mulching, composting and human waste management. ADEs indicate dense populations and intensive farming. In addition to those soil modifications, the Natives left evidence of canals, artificial ponds and fish weirs, walls and roads—evidence also found in North America. The documented layers of ADE soils in Amazonia appear to have been sufficient to support at least eight million people. Rich ADE sites date from 6,000 years ago.
Archaeologists had already documented domestication by the Amazonian Natives of at least 83 species of plants, including palm and fruit trees, cacao, sweet potato, peppers, pineapple, and manioc. Also, as in North America, tobacco.
Clement, who is a crop geneticist and historical ecologist, cautioned that his work does not support the idea that all the current Amazon rainforest could be destroyed to promote modern corporate farming. “Native Amazonians did not clear-cut the forest, nor plant pastures and soy.” He suggested that rather than trying to use his work to excuse the ongoing disruption of existing eco-systems, it is more important to investigate “how the Native Amazonians could support complex societies without destroying the environment.”
The researchers are seeking to head off any claim that because Amazonia was farmed in pre-columbian times, what is happening now will be harmless. Imazon, a non-profit research organization based in Brazil, released a report last year showing that in spite of international “Save the Rainforest!” movements, disappearance of the Brazilian rainforest was up 290 percent from the prior year.
Surviving indigenous people in South America are supporting efforts to save the rainforest, pointing out that modern factory farms have little in common with Native American methods.
Advocates of the narrative that Native Americans were few and nomadic when they discovered Columbus have always smugly pointed out that great populations described by Indians in oral histories would have required farming extensive enough that it should have left physical evidence.
Physical evidence indeed. Evidence like a major drop in atmospheric CO2 when Native farms went fallow? Evidence like tens of thousands of mounds, plazas, ditches, and walls overgrown by jungle vegetation when the builders died? Evidence like bands of anthropogenic soil (created by human activity), soil that showed enough land under cultivation to support the large and well-fed populations reported by the earliest explorers?
Population estimates for the Americas at the time of the European Invasion are being shown repeatedly to be low-balled. Those estimates, Clement and his co-authors wrote, “do not account for demonstrable catastrophic depopulation from epidemics, starvation, slavery and brutality soon after 1492.” The most current research, the authors say, “contrasts strongly with reports of empty forests, which continue to captivate scientific and popular media.” The physical evidence is catching up to the oral histories that have always told us of prosperous farms and lost cities now overgrown by jungle.
The historical narrative has been a few million hunter-gatherers died off from exposure to European diseases, at which time Europeans brought in modern farming methods and put the land to use in a manner the near-extinct nomads could not. History is written by the victors, and the stories of great civilizations destroyed by this criminal jihad were relegated to the oral traditions of the survivors, traditions supported by measurable changes to the land that we are just now learning to read.
Like most crimes, the Columbian Encounter has left physical evidence, enough physical evidence to put the claims that the Americas held only small bands of nomadic hunters in the same category as denial of the Holocaust.
This story was originally published on August 24, 2015.