Eric Sanderson's Mannahatta (New York: Abrams, 2009) reconstructs Manhattan as it would have appeared to Henry Hudson when he sailed the Half-Moon into the harbor in 1609. The glory of the book lies in its illustrations. Here's a conjectural reconstruction of old Manhattan island:
And here's a clever juxtaposition of ancient and modern:
In 1609, the island of Manhattan was home to between 400 and 1000 Lenape Indians. They lived on fish, shellfish (leaving behind extensive middens), deer and other wildlife, on fruits and berries. They practiced some small-scale farming of corn, squash, and beans. Sanderson estimates that the Lenape had lived on Manhattan for 10,000 years, or 400 generations.
Why so few people? The land was fertile, the seas abundant, the weather not particularly harsh. While the Lenape sat still in Manhattan, advanced civilizations were created by the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. Along the banks of the Mississippi, the city of Cahokia rose and fell. And yet the Lenape never domesticated a single animal beside the dog and left behind no pottery, weaving, or metals. They remained stuck in the paleolithic. Why, I wonder. Perhaps things were too good.
On the other hand, the Lenape lived in harmony with the island for a very long time. What are the odds that our present civilization, which has totally transformed Manhattan in 400 short years, or just 16 generations, will last one tenth as long?
February 24: Still curious about the want of population growth or technological development among the Lenape, I read C. A. Weslager's The Delaware Indians, A History (1972) (Lenapes were called by their Anglo name, Delaware, for many years). Wenslager does not suggest that the Lenape ever achieved larger populations. Nor does he point to any archeological evidence of cultural achievement. Still, I'm mildly suspicious that there may be more to the story. We know that Verrazzano contacted the Lenapes 90 years before Hudson sailed into the harbor, and no one knows what diseases he might have introduced.