Being so high up it had to rely on snow-melt from the mountain tops for water. The principal reason for its success was its innovative techniques of terracing and irrigation for agriculture, the staple crops being potatoes and maize. More than a million acres of mountainside that would be abandoned anywhere else were reclaimed by them. They passed on their innovative techniques to their neighbours. Their only beast of burden, the llama was too small to support a human. There were no horses or oxen in all the Americas.
Now our imaginary flight overflies the Amazon rainforest. We cannot see it but here too people live in their thousands. One excavated site, Painted Rock Cave has revealed evidence of human occupation dating back more than 13,000 years, long before humans came to Ireland, for instance. Many advanced societies followed. Many scientists now believe that the rainforest itself is largely anthropogenic: a cultivated and managed orchard first controlled thousands of years ago by Indians.
Such newly-discovered histories appear everywhere in the Americas. In Mesoamerica, the Yucatan Peninsula was the homeland of the Maya. It had literally dozens of cities. Calakmul for instance was not excavated until the 1990s. Covering 25 square miles it had thousands of buildings and scores of reservoirs and canals.
A network of five dozen kingdoms and city-states, the Maya realm was home to one of the world’s most sophisticated cultures. And yet it was far from alone. To the North were the quarrelsome states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, home of the Mixtec and the Zapotec. And further north still, the Toltec, sweeping in every direction from the mile-high basin that today houses Mexico City. By the time of our imaginary flight, Quetzalcoatl their King had conquered the Maya city of Chichen Itza and was rebuilding it in his own Toltec image.
Our imaginary flight heads north still to the Mississippian societies in the Midwest. Cahokia (near modern-day St Louis) was the greatest population centre north of the Rio Grande. That city’s eventual fate holds a salutary lesson for societies in the region today buffeted by continuous hurricanes – for its rulers, by removing forest ground cover to the north (and floating the logs downstream for firewood etc) set themselves up for later destruction by floodwater.
North still we venture and eventually we come to what we view as the traditional Red Indians who were we believe hunter/gatherers. Their material cultures were simpler – no writing, no stone plaza, no massive temples – but they were far from savage. They did, for example, leave behind about 50 rings of rock reminiscent of Stonehenge. They were knowledgeable and masters of their environment, for example, by controlled fire and by forest management.
In brief, the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, culture and religions where at least tens of millions of people loved, hated and worshipped as people do everywhere.
Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation.
Within a century neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world existed.
Only slowly is it now coming to light.
…. more later …..