How North America Looked Before the Europeans Arrived


By William H. MacLeish Houghton Mifflin

277 pp., $21.95


By William H. MacLeish Houghton Mifflin

277 pp., $21.95

THE 1992 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's ``discovery'' of America focused largely on the European experience. There was some effort to tell the story from a native American point of view, but this tended to be lost in the hoopla. Two informative, provocative, and highly readable new books go a long way toward providing a more balanced view.

``The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of a Continent,'' by William MacLeish and Roger Kennedy's ``Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization'' both explore the environment and cultures that preceded the arrival of the first Europeans. And with history as their guide, they both provide low-key but sober lessons for the future.

In his look backward across some 18,000 years, MacLeish takes a more ecological view. ``What I was looking for,'' he writes, ``was not people but land, lakes, streams, and seacoasts, all inhabited by plants and by animals....''

Drawing on the work of geologists and other investigators of pre-history, he tracks the changes in weather patterns and other shifts of nature that shaped the continent along with its plant and animal inhabitants. MacLeish also explores the theories of human development and migration, including the debate over mankind's arrival via a land bridge from Asia. The use of fire, the domestication of animals, the emergence of agriculture, and the development of civilizations are part of this history, as is their impact on the environment.

He also outlines what was happening in Europe during the centuries preceding Columbus's voyage and the subsequent exploration and settlement. More importantly, he discusses the difference in worldview between the two cultures and the impact one had on the other. Describing the development of rationalism he writes: ``This, then, was the gaze Europe turned westward when it realized, finally, what one of its navigators had found at the other side of the alien sea. The mind behind it was creative and predatory, increasingly bedazzled by the power of linear thought and the enticements of progress. It was this worldview that swept west across continents dreaming different dreams.''

There is judgment in this analysis, as there is in MacLeish's description of what was in store for native Americans. But he does not romanticize those first North Americans, realizing that, ``If you are going to dehumanize someone, it may be better manners to do so with canonization than with calumny. But manners don't alter the consequence.''

The same can be said of Roger Kennedy, former director of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution and now director of the National Park Service. In ``Hidden Cities'' he does not canonize American natives. Rather, he describes in careful detail the rise and fall of ancient civilizations here and the evidence indicating a level of culture that matched and even exceeded anything found elsewhere.

``The architecture of the Mississippi watershed is as old as that of Egypt,'' he writes, referring to scientific evidence (some of it, using carbon and pollen dating, fairly recent) indicating that large structures were being built here some 6,000 years ago.

Near St. Louis, for example, there was a complex of plazas, temples, and palaces that included a pyramid bigger than that at Giza in Egypt. The remnants of precise geometrical structures with astrological markings have been found in the Ohio Valley.

On this continent, Kennedy writes, ``Works of architecture, great in size, precision, and complexity, were planned and built, and the clear implication is that this occurred under the direction of a priesthood of astronomer-engineer-architects.''

So why did these people stop building sophisticated structures? Why did their numbers drop dramatically? Some of the answers are unknown, although they probably include overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, and pollution. But it is clear that diseases introduced by 16th-century explorers wiped out tens of millions of early Americans before Europeans began to establish more permanent colonies.

As a result, writes Kennedy, ``Between 1500 and 1700, pain and shock broke the continuities of American culture.'' This (plus racist attitudes) left native Americans more nearly the ``primitive'' and ``heathen'' people the newcomers were expecting.

The founding fathers had an inkling of what had been. Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Address to Congress, referred to his home territory as ``this Egypt of the West.'' Of early archaeological evidence, George Washington wrote: ``Those works which are found upon the Ohio ... show traces of the country's having been once inhabited by a race of people more ingenious, at least, if not more civilized than those who at present dwell there....''

Both ``The Day Before America'' and ``Hidden Cities,'' add much to our understanding of the continent before the Europeans arrived and changed so much.

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