1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbusby Charles C. Mann Published 10 Oct 2006
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A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.
Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’s landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed mainly in small, nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last thirty years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.
In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions. Among them:
In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
Certain cities–such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital–were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as "man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering."
Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it–a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.
Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" by human beings.
Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation.
"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" Reviews
My favorite recent history book, Mann surveys the breadth and complexity of indigenous cultures in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Some of this research was familiar to me. When I taught American history in the 2000s, I would start with such 'snapshots' of Cahokia, the Olmecs, the Serpent Mound, the Maya, the great trade networks that connected the continent. But even that information was hard to find. Good luck finding even a mention of it in the school textbooks. Despite having some knowledge, I was blown away, again, by how populated and cultivated the American landscape was before the cataclysmic arrival of Europeans and their diseases. This book blows up many stubborn, out-dated theories like the singular Bering land-bridge migration, the idea that the land was 'mostly empty' when Europeans arrived, and the idea that most indigenous peoples were 'simple' hunter gatherers. It also gives us a good look at just how stubborn and resistant traditional Euro-American scholarship has been to accepting any new information that didn't fit established theories about the indigenous peoples. None of this will comes as a surprise to indigenous readers themselves, I'm sure, but for me, it was a refreshing, amazing read. I knew nothing about the vast, sophisticated terraforming societies of sub-Amazonian South America, or the pre-Incan empires, or the way that hunter-gatherer people intentionally crafted the landscape to better serve their needs. Mann gave me a tantalizing glimpse into a complex, beautiful pre-Columbian world.
The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.
But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as rich as medieval europe's is ludicrous, especially given that such a huge volume of Aztec codices have been preserved and deciphered. The Aztecs did some respectable philosophical work, but Mann's exaggerations aside, they didn't come close to rivaling the work done in ancient Greece, to say nothing of the subsequent 2,000 years of philosophy in Europe (with a nod towards Middle Eastern contributions as well) that took place between the death of Aristotle and the discovery of the new world. Today, it may be possible to take a mesoamerican philosophy course in some university departments, but there are very few (if any) lasting or novel contributions to the the broader discipline of philosophy to be found in Aztec (or Mayan, or Incan) philosophy. There's no shame in that: it has been said that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. So why feel the need to exaggerate and mislead readers by making politically correct assertions that have no basis in reality?
Also, the distinction the author draws between guilt and responsibility (i.e. 'we' should not feel guilty that Cortes introduced smallpox and wiped out 95% of american indians, but 'we' have some responsibility for this) is way too underdeveloped to be taken seriously. I don't necessarily think that the discussion is even necessary, but it is not an uncommon discussion in US politics, and Mann consciously decides to wade into these waters. First, he never defines 'we,' though it seems he means whites of european descent residing in the new world (and maybe Europeans back in Europe who benefitted from mercantilism/colonialism? It's not clear). And then he never explains how responsibility can be justly divided among descendants; how someone of, say, direct Cortez lineage might have a different level of 'responsibility' than a descendant of an Irish family with no seafaring anscestors and no pedigree in the New World until the late 19th century. And if they have the same 'responsibility,' then does a modern day Chinese or Indian immigrant to the new world also have some responsibility? All unclear, and the absence of even any contemplation of these points leaves the book's attempts at constructing a morality of European/American Indian interaction disappointingly hollow. Mann decided the topic was worthy enough to merit some discussion; it is unfortunate he failed to do the topic any justice.
As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New World. (She wholeheartedly supports the "a really, really long time" camp.)
My only critique of 1491, and it is minor, is that the author I feel overstates the case that Europeans (mainly English) did not enjoy a military superiority over the natives, that their powder weapons were ineffective. This is a rather generous reading of native military capability. The English army did away with the longbow in 1598, and for all their problems, powder weapons were a clear advantage. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain used just three harquebus to devastating effect against the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in 1609, and in his trade and colonization monopoly, secured in 1612 under the Prince de Condé, the terms specifically forbid anyone to trade powder weapons with the natives, under penalty of a 10,000 livre fine and corporal punishment. One of the key factors in European inability not to immediately conquer or eradicate native populations by force was the sheer lack of firepower. (They also needed them as trade partners.) These commercial ventures (English and French in particular) didn't have the full might of their states behind them in the early contact period. Had England or France made up their mind to truly "conquer" these shores and their peoples, they would have marched through them much like de Soto did in the southeastern US in the mid 16th century, for good or for ill (pretty well for ill). But an idea the author does well to advance is the fact that coastal nations or tribes that made contact with the newcomers often came to decide that they should secure a strategic advantage and enlist the newcomers' aid in fighting their own enemies. It was a complicated time, and 1491 is a worthy overview.
Having now finished, I'll still recommend it. For those interested in precontact cultures north of 49 (as in half of North America) the lack of material about French Canada is a little disappointing. There's nothing about the much-debated vanishing of the Iroquoian-speaking residents of the St. Lawrence (at Hochelaga and Stadacona) who were there in large numbers in palisade villages when Cartier first visited in the 1530s, but had vanished utterly by the time Champlain showed up in 1603. But that's nitpicky, considering the enormous scope of this work.
Very well written, a good mixture of factual evidence and narrative. The main take home point here should be known to everyone, especially Americans. There is a reason why there was a period of 128 years between Colombus' landing and a permanent European settlement in North America. Namely, there were millions of Native Americans there who thought Europeans were dirty, amusing creatures who had interesting objects but were not fit for being neighbors. Attempted European settlers were continuously driven out. When one tribe finally took pity on the English settlement of Plymouth, it was only because a smallpox epidemic had killed vast numbers of the them off, and they were concerned about being run over by their enemies, who had not yet suffered this fate. It is likely that were it not for the outbreaks of smallpox, preceding many of the first European scouts moving westward, that America would have never been a country.
Oh yeah, and concerning South America, there is evidence that much, possibly 70-80%, of the Amazon forest is man-made.
This is definitely a well researched & eye opening book that will challenge the idea that Native Americans were a sparse people who had no effect on their environment and let things be on their own. The only reason people think that most Native Americans were purely nomadic hunters was because the smallpox had killed off most of the 'urbanized' settlements that required agriculture.
In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.
Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness. This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix "savage" with "noble," because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.
He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:
1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought (i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off)
2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts
3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural world
On the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes. However, there were a number of things that set me off, most of them centering around my suspicion that Mann was trying harder to convince than reveal. Maybe this stems from his journalistic rather than academic background, but I constantly felt cajoled when what I wanted to feel was "of course!"
First of all there was the general lack of methods. Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a result of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived. To his credit, Mann touches on it, but he treats the issue of error as a sort of footnote, noting one scientist who thinks the degree of error makes the numbers meaningless. Throughout the book I found myself asking, "But how do we know that?" and was generally disappointed by the number and quality of the citations (sources often include interviews, personal communication, and secondary sources that themselves lack citation).
To provide another example, on p. 234 he describes how Olmecs deformed the pliant skulls of their infants to make them look a certain way... only to admit archaeologists only assume they did this based on their artwork. No ellipsis can adequately contain my stupefaction at the absurdity of that claim. Have you seen Mesoamerican artwork? Have you seen any human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe? Not exactly the height of realism. Perusing his source, it seems that the figurines looked deformed, and intentional deformation was apparently documented elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but the citation trail goes Spanish there, so I'm lost. If there were first-hand accounts of similar practices, you need to describe them. In the text. Because shaping baby skulls is WEIRD by our standards.
There were other portions that just seemed irrational and/or unscientific. His attempt to equate human sacrifice among the Mexica (aka Aztecs) and 17th century executions in Britain was a bit ridiculous, as fellow Goodreads user Stefan pointed out (p. 134). On p. 172 he actually describes error ranges for carbon dating as "typographical clutter" [muffled howl of rage]. On p. 291 he writes, "Indians [...] began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast." He cites Krummer (an Atlantic Monthly article about chestnut restoration) and himself, neither of which mention Indian planting. You get the picture.
Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general sense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer. Two back-to-back quotes sum this up nicely:
"The complexity of a society's technology has little to do with its level of social complexity–something that we, in our era of rapidly changing seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping." (p. 250)
"But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world." (p. 251)
The sagacity of the former idea and the absurd implication that cultural and technological interchange in Eurasia was both one-way and morally wrong perfectly describe 2/3 of the Ueda-Mann Venn diagram.
But like I said, on the whole pretty good. I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the founding of the United States super intriguing, worth books of their own. Maybe that's where he's going with 1493.
prelapsarian (adj): before the Fall of Man. Talkin' Bilbical here. (p. 14)
telluric (adj): terrestrial, pertaining to soil. (p. 80)
statrapies (n): in this context, leaders (or states?) that act primarily in response to larger political entities. (p. 138)
fissiparous (adj): tending to fall apart / separate. (p. 373)
Fascinating exploration of what we know of the "New World" before Columbus arrived. I knew pretty much nothing about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before. It's also an interesting survey of these societies and their environments, of how the Indians and the "pristine" environments are a bit of a myth. The scope of the book covers so many different culture, puts everything into a context I never imagined before.
The author obviously loves what he does, and relishes research and it definitely makes potentially dry material come to life. Opened my eyes to a subject I knew nothing about, so I highly recommend!!!!