Saturday, May 05, 2007

Review: "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus", Charles C. Mann

I just finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (Vintage Books, 2006; Knopf hardback edition, 2005). If you have any interest at all in anthropology or archaeology, or in the history of the Western Hemisphere, especially that period before the Europeans arrived, you will probably find this book fascinating.

Mann addresses several topics here. One is the idea that the Western Hemisphere was much more populous at European contact than was previously believed. It is possible, he writes, that there were more people in the Western Hemisphere in 1491 than there were in Europe, and that at the city of Tenochtitlan - the Aztec capital - had more inhabitants at contact than did any European city of the time. Mann also looks at the ongoing arguments over when the first inhabitants of the hemisphere arrived and how and when - and how fast - they spread out over the land. In addition, he presents new evidence that, far from being an untouched land on which the native inhabitants made no mark, the Western Hemisphere had been extensively transformed by those who lived here. The reason the land appeared so pristine when settlers arrived after the initial 100 to 200 year period of conquest was that so many of the inhabitants had been killed off, mostly by the spread of diseases carried by the first Europeans to arrive, perhaps as much as 90 to 95 percent of the population in some areas.

Previous to European contact, Mann writes, the high population of the hemisphere had turned the land into a “managed” environment. However, by the time settlers arrived so much of the population had died that there were not enough people left to keep the environment under control. Farmed land was overgrown by forest, for example on the east coast of what is now the United States. Populations of species such as bison and passenger pigeons, which had been kept to manageable numbers by the Indians, exploded when hunting declined along with the human population. He even presents new evidence that the Amazon region, long thought to have been sparsely settled by small and unsophisticated groups, never extensively farmed due to the unsuitability of the soil, was actually was one of those highly managed areas that for thousands of years supported large, fairly advanced cultures that subsisted mostly by farming rather than by hunting and gathering. Some of this information has not been welcomed, especially by environmentalists, including the idea that part of the management of the Amazon was done through what he calls a “slash and char” process that allowed the inhabitants to add charcoal to the soil and enhanced its suitability for farming. But, Mann writes, this wasn’t the wholesale burning that modern developers have practiced to their own economic gain and showing evidence that the process was used is not the same thing as supporting what has gone on in the region more recently.

While Mann writes that more and more anthropologists and archaeologists are coming to accept the new evidence he reports and the new picture of conditions in the Western Hemisphere before European contact that this evidence supports, there is still significant dissent to these new views. He presents both sides of the debate even though it is fairly clear that he favors the new paradigm. He also proposes that there are political reasons why some individuals, both in and out of the anthropological community, cling to the old view that there were few people here when the Europeans arrived, and that most of them were unsophisticated both culturally and technologically. This old view, he argues, makes the European occupation of the hemisphere more palatable than having to face the possibility that they came and took over land that was already possessed by large and sophisticated civilizations that were in some cases different only in detail and not in substance from those in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Mann, a science writer for such publications as Science and The Atlantic Monthly is a good writer who presents the stories he tells with wit and humanity. The arguments he presents for his premises are quite convincing, for the most part. He has documented his research extensively - the book contains 52 pages of endnotes and the bibliography runs to 58 pages. Obviously, he does not expect the reader to take his word for the evidence he presents, and in fact in the Afterword to the paperback edition of the book he explicitly states that he “wanted to have a fuller bibliography than is usual in popular works - I wanted to point people to the original sources, so that readers who were interested could find out more.” There is clearly more to be said on these subjects, and newer and even more extensive evidence could modify or overturn some of the ideas Mann presents and advocates for. Such is the nature of science, and of history. Still, this overview of the subject as it stands is interesting, valuable, and a very good read.

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