Charles C. Mann wrote an article called 1491 for The Atlantic in 2002. He followed that article with a book, titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A summary of the book is as follows: “Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.”
The book is a terrific read that I highly recommend. If you want a taste of it, first read the linked article in The Atlantic.
Now what does this have to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Not much directly. First, evidence continues to build of a highly populated North and South America with many sophisticated societies. The peoples actively managed the environment – regularly burning large areas of land, planting trees, and improving the soil. The view of Native American peoples living in small groups ‘harmonious’ with nature around them is outdated.
“In a widely cited article from 1989, William Balée, the Tulane anthropologist, cautiously estimated that about 12 percent of the nonflooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin—directly or indirectly created by human beings. In some circles this is now seen as a conservative position. ‘I basically think it’s all human-created,’ Clement told me in Brazil. He argues that Indians changed the assortment and density of species throughout the region. So does Clark Erickson, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, who told me in Bolivia that the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet. ‘Some of my colleagues would say that’s pretty radical,’ he said, smiling mischievously. According to Peter Stahl, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, ‘lots’ of botanists believe that ‘what the eco-imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval world] in fact has been managed by people for millennia.’ The phrase ‘built environment,’ Erickson says, ‘applies to most, if not all, Neotropical landscapes.'” (Mann, 1491, The Atlantic).
How does this fit with the Book of Mormon?
5 Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land.
6 And now no part of the land was desolate, save it were for timber; but because of the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land it was called desolate.
7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.
8 And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east [possibly within a small region of modern day southern Mexico/northern Guatemala].
9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.
10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement. (Helaman 3:5-11)
So we have American inhabitants destroying large swaths of forest, cultivating new forests, building cities, and so forth. Now back to the article by Charles Mann:
Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. (Mann, 1491; emphasis added).
None of this proves the ancient historicity of the Book of Mormon, nor should belief in the Book of Mormon be tied to science. The truth of the Book of Mormon is independent from outside scientific evidence; truth is established by God and manifest by the Holy Ghost. That being said, articles and books like these written by Charles Mann are interesting.