When Europeans did come, it wasn't their atrocities that finished off the Indians, manifold though these were. It was the diseases, especially smallpox, that wiped out as much as 95 percent of the population in parts of the Andes, Mexico, and the Great Plains. Historians have long known that European plagues devastated native society, but [Charles C. Mann Knopf] shows how they ripped through the Americas with a speed and totality only now brought into focus with new excavations and fresh analysis of colonial death records. Disease, probably carried by de [Hernando de Soto]'s 300 pigs, wiped out the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley in his wake, Mann explains. Assiduous Indian management had kept down the number of buffalo, but with the Indians dead, the animals were free to breed and run roughshod over the landscape. By then no one was around to remember the society that had thrived before, so a mythic image of wilderness and giant herds took hold.
I'm quibbling. Mann has written a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin one after the other, such as that of the Pilgrims finding a pristine world of woodlands and guileless natives. Hundreds of European ships had visited the crowded New England coast by the time the Pilgrims arrived, and the indigenous Massachusett had long been trading with the visitors. Mann brings empathy, drama, and a well-calibrated sense of humor to his descriptions of their first, fumbling contacts.