In his recent book, 1491, Charles C. Mann reports upon controversial emerging trends in archeology, history, anthropology and other disciplines that study humankind in the Americas before the Europeans arrived in 1492. The most striking of these is the view that the condition of these continents before the Europeans arrived was the exact opposite of what these sciences, and everybody, really, had previously supposed.
Rather than the previously postulated pristine wilderness, little touched by the hand of man, both North and South America, and Mesoamerica in between, consisted of systems engineered by the hand of man to support populations far larger than previously imagined. The forests, river valleys and grasslands of Eastern North America, for example, were carefully husbanded to supply the needs of life for extensive, large population centers. Maize cultivation flourished everywhere in a highly successful agricultural tradition that had proved self sustaining for millennia.
These societies were well organized and capable of massive public works to modify the environment to suit their needs. Terracing, roads, irrigation works, canals, reservoirs, and huge cities existed everywhere in this hemisphere, even in the Amazon, which itself may be an artifact of Eco-agriculture carried out by humans for thousands of years.
All of this human accomplishment was wiped out almost instantly when Europeans arrived carrying all manner of disease unknown in the New World. The book explores the scientific reasons for this at some length. Old World populations lived in proximity to numerous animal species that didn't exist in the Western Hemisphere. A side effect of this was the occasional mutation of some animal disease to a human form. As a result, the Europeans arriving after 1491 carried all manner of diseases for which they themselves enjoyed robust immunity, but which were unlike anything ever before encountered by the unprepared immune systems of the original peoples of the hemisphere.
Randy Newman's lyric puts it like this in his historically descriptive song, The Great Nations of Europe, "Bullets, disease, the Portuguese, they weren't there any more. . . . They got TB and typhoid and athlete's foot, diphtheria and the flu. 'Scuze me, Great Nations coming through."
So, one important lesson of 1491 is about the chaos and destruction that follows when alien biological systems encounter one another, such as Randy Newman's "bug from out of Africa". Just 500 years ago, humanity, by the millions, was apparently wiped out by such bugs, in the course of a couple of generations, across an entire hemisphere of this planet. One constant of human existence has always been that sooner or later there is another devastating plague. The next really bad one, however, will more likely arise not because of Newman's figurative bug from Africa, but because of a virus from a genetics lab, released either by accident or ill intent.
Perhaps a more important lesson from 1491 is political in nature. The new discoveries and insights into the societies and cultures of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the European scourges teach a great deal about what communities working together can accomplish. Many highly organized cultures experienced great success bringing general prosperity to large populations, being more civilized on a more widespread basis, by many measures of civilization, than much of Europe, Asia and Africa at the same time in history. Most of them did this without making trade and commerce the cause of all prosperity, as we do, but one of prosperity's effects.
Human accomplishments in the Western Hemisphere before 1491 demonstrate that there are more ways to organize societies on a large scale than we previously imagined. I find the idea particularly intriguing that the Amazon forest was cultivated to support large human populations. This vast expanse of South America was previously thought by leading scholars to have been always uninhabitable. Because of the importance, now, of the Amazon as a giant CO2 sink, as humans attempt to re-inhabit the forest one hopes they can learn from the success of those who, so successfully, sustainably abided there before.