How North America Looked before the Europeans Arrived

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THE DAY BEFORE AMERICA: CHANGING THE NATURE OF A CONTINENT By William H. MacLeish Houghton Mifflin 277 pp., $21.95 THE DAY BEFORE AMERICA: CHANGING THE NATURE OF A CONTINENT 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. …


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