Why is it important to know the numbers of native peoples who lived in the Americas before 1491?

It is important to know the numbers of natives people who lived in the Americas before 1491 because this helps us to understand that the Europeans encountered sophisticated native cultures, not primitive "savages" when they first arrived in the New World. These cultures were large and robust but quickly depopulated, Mann argues, because of the diseases the Europeans brought.

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Knowing—or estimating—the numbers of native people who lived in the Americas before 1492, the date usually designated as that of first contact with the Europeans, is important because it helps us understand what native culture was like before the Europeans arrived.

Mann argues, based on pulling together the work of...

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Knowing—or estimating—the numbers of native people who lived in the Americas before 1492, the date usually designated as that of first contact with the Europeans, is important because it helps us understand what native culture was like before the Europeans arrived.

Mann argues, based on pulling together the work of researchers such as William Denevan and William Ballee, that the population of the Americas was much higher than has generally been believed. Up to ninety percent of the native population was very rapidly wiped out, these scholars argue, after first contact with the Europeans. This was due to the spread of a host of diseases, such as smallpox and cholera, that the Europeans brought and the natives had no immunity to.

Positing a much higher native population supports the idea that the native people were not "savages" but had built a sophisticated culture to rival European civilization. Mann especially focuses on the idea that instead of wild and untamed lands, the country the Europeans encountered was planned, cultivated, and managed in ways too advanced for the Europeans to understand. In fact, the Europeans who first met with native people were small and malnourished compared to the tall, strong, healthy native people.

Understanding that the native people could have had much larger numbers than the conventional stories state helps us to counter self-serving European narratives of native inferiority that were used to justify white takeover of the two continents.

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