Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

Cover of "1491"Charles C. Mann would like to let you know that almost everything you know about the Americas before European contact is wrong in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Amazon link). Mann is a journalist who, after learning bits and pieces of new research into pre-contact American history, decided to summarize these findings. He draws from history, archeology, anthropology, ecology, genetics, linguistics, and many other fields to present a detailed but high-level overview of this untold history.

The central point of the book is to rebut various misunderstandings about the history of Native Americans: that they had no history, primarily, but also that the continent was a pristine wilderness only lightly touched by human cultures which had not progressed beyond hunting/gathering or at best neolithic agriculture, and whose technological backwardness doomed them to conquest. Such an account is accepted even by “sympathetic” students of Indian1 history, but it’s all wrong. Besides refuting these factual errors, he also refutes a thematic error: the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims. Mann shows the the first peoples of the Americas were active in history, and highlights ways in which contact between the Old World and the New was a two-way street.

Mann attacks the standard historiography of pre-contact America – the story that appears in his son’s textbooks, which inspired him to write 1491– on three fronts: population, cultural antiquity, and ecological footprint. In the three major sections of the book, he shows that the Americas were thickly populated by people with ancient, innovative cultures and who shaped and controlled their landscapes with methods as effective as any Eurasian agriculture. Along the way are the “revelations” of the book’s subtitles. Probably the most encompassing and telling comment about the book I can make is that I never expected to be so engrossed by a section on the mechanics of a calendar system. It’s a testament to Mann’s ability as a writer and storyteller that he can deliver engaging exposition of the most esoteric topics.

Early European accounts and archeological findings indicate that the Americas were not a sparsely settled land: explorers describe coasts swarming with people, towns and villages so close that three could be seen from one, and so many people that they might contain the majority of humanity. Recent findings are more modest, but estimate that the Americas could have been home to 20% of the human population in the 15th century. Mann develops a “master narrative” of contact which explains the apparent emptiness later explorers would find, based on disease. Most people are familiar with the basic idea of the effects of plagues inadvertently unleashed by European explorers, but Mann argues they are central. Due to a quirk of heredity, native peoples may have been especially vulnerable to animal-borne diseases, and 50% to 90% of the original American population may have died. Following the social breakdown such an epidemic would cause, factional rivalry made alliance with the strange, pale newcomers an attractive option, giving Europeans a political vector for conquest. In modern New England, Mexico, and Peru, this story unfolded in different forms.

Mann follows up this sobering account with an exploration into the antiquity of human habitation in the Americas, going over the history of archeological debate on the subject. Apparently, the Americas have been inhabited so long that they should not properly be known as the “New” World: during the Ice Age, Europe was uninhabited while humanity in the Americas flourished. This leads into an account of Indian cultural development. Cities in the Americas with high populations existed at roughly the same time as Egyptian civilization developed, such that two of the “Cradles of Civilization” are in the Americas: the Olmec in Mesoamerica and Norte Chico in Peru. Norte Chico itself is a puzzler, different from any other Cradle in that it maintained high population on an arid coast with little potential for agriculture. Its inhabitants lived on fish, and the inland production of textiles from cotton (one of the few crops that its irrigation systems supported) created a “hydraulic” political relationship between the coast and the inland. Strange patterns, unlike anything seen in Eurasia, are a general theme of American civilization. For example, ancient Cahokia, in what is now Illinois, was a city composed of religious centers and the homes of farmers, rather than the familiar model of rural farmers supporting urban specialists. The development of indigenous American civilization had no pattern to follow, and went on its own strange path.

This strangeness is the centerpiece of Mann’s argument against the “light touch” conception of Indian habitation. Far from being “noble savages” who lived in harmony with nature, the original inhabitants of the Americas reshaped the landscape utterly. In North America, seasonal controlled burns maintained pastures and cleared underbrush. The forests of the east coast were, according to early European accounts, like “parks,” with clear space between all the trees, perfect for causal strolling. Or, rather, hunting: Indians did not practice animal husbandry, they turned whole forests into game parks. In Amazonia, long considered an agricultural dead zone, a “wet desert” with soil too poor for farming even when cleared, another type of strange agriculture flourished. The people of the Amazon created preta terra, “dark soil,” an artificial topsoil that is amazingly fecund, and used it to create orchards which are still in use today. Even traditional farming took a different course: the milpa, more like a garden than a field, in which multiple crop types grew side by side, reinforcing each others’ nutritional needs and sustainably keeping the land fertile. Early European accounts did not even recognize these as farms, thinking the land naturally produced abundant food. The later European descriptions of pristine, untouched nature are, in fact, inadvertent European creations: when disease wiped out the majority of the native population, there was no one to maintain this artificial landscape and it reverted to a wild state.

In terms of style, while the occasional “personal narrative” sections are a bit too journalistic, the prose is clear and engaging, and as noted, Mann has  talent for explaining the most arcane and esoteric points. Most surprising of all, though, is that despite being a “popular” history, 1491 is very well cited. Striking a balance between readability and reference, every page of the text has a corresponding section in the end notes, allowing the reader to follow the paper trail for any item of interest. Even so, Mann’s narration of historic events which must have been reconstructed from archeological artifacts leaves one wondering how the researchers Mann is summarizing arrived at these conclusions. While Mann is often careful to note where his descriptions are speculative and occasionally explains methods (such as a brief but effective explanation of carbon-14 dating), an appendix on methodology would have been useful.

In some ways, it seems like Mann goes a bit too far in attempting to correct misunderstandings of pre-contact America, and puts unnecessary effort into lionizing rather than simply revising. His last section goes into Indians’ contributions to European culture: the freer, egalitarian lifestyles of North American tribes might very well have influenced European settlers used to rigid, severe social hierarchy, creating the cultural foundations of the American ideal of liberty. It is known that settlers would often “go native” and refuse to return to European colonies. But his argument that a difference in native culture, between northeastern egalitarian tribes and more authoritarian southeastern tribes, could have contributed to the north/south divide on slavery is too much. He acknowledges the role of geography on the economy, but it’s hard to imagine that hierarchical and authoritarian tribes in the rocky northeast would have led to vast, labor-intensive plantations, whereas the south might have gone down some gentler non-agrarian path with a more enlightened native culture to learn from.

Similarly, Mann sometimes seems overly defensive in preempting criticism. In a chapter on the Inca, he describes their origin legend, of a founding family’s migration from the Lake Titicaca region. The Spaniard who recorded this story dismissed it as absurd, and Mann comments in reply that a migration from the Titicaca region is quite plausible. But why even go through the effort, when the chronicler’s comment is so bizarre, and there really is nothing strange about a legend encoding a history of migration to begin with?

Then again, such a “hyper-corrective” stance is understandable, given the dominant narrative Mann is challenging. When describing the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, he is careful to contextualize the death toll in terms of capital punishment in Europe, and from there one can see that while horrible, Aztec ritual was not unique in barbarity. An Amazon review of the book chiding Mann on this very point, for not going into lurid detail about the blood and gore, only validates Mann’s point. Dwelling on the gruesomeness of human sacrifice adds nothing to our understanding of the Aztecs. We already know they did it, we already know it was bad. In a world of death and brutality, such a focus tells us nothing about the Aztecs that hostile accounts of Native American history don’t already. Everyone hears about Aztecs cutting hearts out of chests. No one hears about the complex tradition of philosophy and literature which flourished in Aztec society. The strength of 1491 is to expand our knowledge, not to reiterate tired old polemics.

And it is on that last point that the great tragedy of the story Mann tells comes to light. No one knows about the Aztec intellectual tradition outside of a few scraps preserved by the conquistadors, no one knows anywhere near as much about Indian cultures as we could. Cut down by disease, stifled by conquest2, we lost the contributions of a whole hemisphere of people. When one considers the passive cultural effect of Indian liberty on settlers in North America, one realizes the titanic scale of this loss.

1. There is an appendix discussing the tricky issue of naming and terminology, in which Mann essentially concludes that “Native American” is an un-asked-for label, and that “Indian” is used by the people it refers to enough that its general use is acceptable.
2. It should be noted that as much as Mann corrects hostile accounts of Indian culture, he does not needlessly vilify Europeans. One of the more interesting revelations was in regard to the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. Whatever the native Mexicans thought of Spanish rule, they did not fault the Spanish for attacking and conquering a great empire in its weakness. Their perspective, apparently, was that had the positions been reversed, they would have done the same.

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9 thoughts on “Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

  1. Pingback: On Revisionism: A Case Study « A Register of Follies

  2. wow, great review–very comprehensive! definitely makes me want to read this, but also follow up these topics as covered in Howard Zinn’s history, too–just to see whether the “sympathetic” perspective criticized here is exactly Zinn, or whether he has some more info and nuance to add.

    • Well, I don’t recall any explicit reference to Zinn in 1491. Mann’s issue is with perspectives, sympathetic or not, which portray American Indians as passive elements of history. The idea that they were noble savages who never disrupted the natural world or barbarians who never progressed out of a feral mode of living are equally incorrect in their assumption of a lack of historical action. But also, a view which portrays Indians as either passive victims or ineffectual villains destroyed by European conquests and colonization ignores the degree to which they actively engaged Europeans. So, if Zinn presented Indians as tragic victims whose harmony-with-nature lifestyle was brutally destroyed without any effective engagement no their part, Mann would object.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Pingback: On Agency in History « A Register of Follies

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