All of this is speculative, to say the least, and may well be wrong. Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.
In college I read a one-volume history of the world by the distinguished historian William H. McNeill. Called, simply enough, A World History, and published in 1967, it began with what McNeill and most other historians then considered the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq, home of Sumer, oldest of all complex polities; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and, in east central China, the valley of the Huang He, more familiar to Westerners as the Yellow River. If McNeill were writing A World History today, discoveries like those at Huaricanga would force him to add two more areas to the book. The first and better known is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century.
Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.
A few decades ago, many researchers would have included jump-starting Andean civilization on the honor roll of Mesoamerican accomplishments. The Olmec, it was proposed, visited Peru, and the locals, dutiful students, copied their example. Today we know that technologically sophisticated societies arose in Peru first—the starting date, to archaeologists’ surprise, keeps getting pushed back. Between 3200 and 2500 B.C., large-scale public buildings, the temple at Huaricanga among them, rose up in at least seven settlements on the Peruvian coast—an extraordinary efflorescence for that time and place. When the people of the Norte Chico were building these cities, there was only one other urban complex on earth: Sumer.
—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus