1491

Charles C. Mann
2005

Of course everyone knows about Aztecs and Incas, the Iriquois and the Mayans. But not many of us fully realize just how advanced, and how “civilized” in the European sense, these and many other vanished cultures were.

Early in 1491, we encounter this fanciful description:

Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens—none existed in Europe.

Passages like this one are everywhere in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling “history” of the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere. It would be tempting to dismiss him as just another romanticizer, if the detail and quality of the scholarship he reports were less impressive.

Mann is a journalist, not an anthropologist,  but he has the ability to present complex, often controversial takes on the Americas before Europeans in prose that is direct but not simplistic, clear but not superficial.

I came away from 1491, which is new to me although not a new book, impressed by Mann’s presentation of a mass of evidence that goes a long way toward proving wrong both of the ways the public typically views the early American civilizations.

Mann contends that both the Eurocentric, racist view of little brown savages in need of civilizing and the more contemporary portrayal, popular with environmentalists, that before contact with Europeans the American natives were simple and pure, living in harmony with a primeval nature which they barely impacted, are wrong. Not only wrong, they are patronizing, even infantilizing.

What both views miss, Mann insists, is that the Americas before 1492 were the site of a number of highly sophisticated and highly successful civilizations, cultures that were in many ways the equal of or superior to the cultures of the invading Europeans.

Throughout the book, Mann identifies variations of what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,”   the idea that before Columbus the people of America had no history, lived as subsistence hunter-gatherers in a landscape which they affected little, if at all. Holmberg, living with Amerinds in the 1940s, considered the people he encountered “living exemplars of primitive humankind.” In Holmberg’s words, they were the  “quintessence” of “man in the raw state of nature.”

No, says Mann, they’re not. They’re the survivors of an impressive and persistent culture that European contact destroyed, by disease and by design. What colonizers saw a century after conquest was not the world that the conquerors had discovered. It was the pathetic remnants of that lost world.

It’s the passion of Mann’s “lost history” viewpoint that makes the book so compelling. Mann presents evidence from architecture, science, philosophy, art, politics, technology, and many other areas to make his case that it’s time to give the early Americans their place in history.

Mann’s goal is to change that assessment, and if his evidence is accurate, he succeeds.

The background for Mann’s argument is the familiar story of a hemisphere of cultures wiped out by disease. Whether the population of meso-America fell by 75% or 95% in the generation after European contact, there’s no doubting that whatever had been was no more.

Of course everyone knows about Aztecs and Incas, the Iriquois and the Mayans. But not many of us fully realize just how advanced, and how “civilized” in the European sense, these and many other vanished cultures were.

Mann makes his most evocative case  when he describes the few works of pre-contact philosophy, poetry, and science that survive. Citing a poem about the power of art to transcend mortality, a theme completely familiar to poets in Europe and Asia, Mann contemplates the enormity of the loss to world culture when an entire hemisphere’s history of thought was wiped out virtually overnight:

Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence—and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the distintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.

Mann notes that “the simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!”

Envision this kind of fertile back-and-forth happening in a hundred ways with a hundred cultures—the gifts from four centuries of intellectual exchange. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable. Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished when smallpox came ashore.

As noted earlier, this kind of breathless prose would be hard to take if it were all that Mann had to offer. But these rhetorical excesses bob along, supported by pages of detail from a wide range of historical and archaeological sources.

Mann’s argument that pre-Columbian natives were neither passive nor primitive relies on evidence of their sophisticated, long-term manipulation and management of their environment. He makes a particularly strong case for his claim that the “pristine” wilderness encountered by westward-moving European colonizers was largely the result of an ecosystem that had lost its “keystone species” and had been quickly distorted into something it had never been. The “forest primeval” of our legend and history was not an environment in which Indians lived as primitive savages but rather was the result of the effective removal of the Indians from the landscape which they had controlled for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years.

Speaking of what is now the eastern United States, Mann writes:

Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak.

And,

Until Columbus, Indians were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere. Annually burning undergrowth, clearing and replanting forests, building canals and raising fields, hunting bison and netting salmon, growing maize, manioc, and the Eastern Agricultural Complex, Native Americans had been managing their environment for thousands of years.

With this understanding, Mann hopes, we will finally restore their history to pre-contact Americans, giving them back the stature and respect that both those who wish to civilize the heathen and those who desire to glorify the noble savage have denied them.

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