Sunday, December 23, 2007


Machu Picchu. The Inka, for Mann, are a paradigmatic example of the role of disease and political fragmentation in the conquest of American civilization by the Europeans.

Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage, 2005).

Charles C. Mann, journalist, who writes (mostly) science coverage for the Atlantic Monthly, Nat'l Geo, Vanity Fair, etc. His other books include @ Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion (1998, with David Freedman); Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species (1996, with Mark Plummer); The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition (1991, with Mark Plummer); and The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics (1986, with Robert Crease).

My review: Mann's book is an overview of debates in archaeology, anthrophology, ethnobotany, paleontology, paleography, paleobotany, ancient history, and any number of other specialized fields, all of whom are trying to determine what the "New World" looked like before Europeans got here. The overall impact is a shift from a view of a sparsely populated, wild place filled with primitives who lived by the grace of the land, to a conception of continents covered with people who maintained the landscape for their particular needs, sometimes living in balance with the ecology and sometimes failing to do so.

Mann echoes Shephard Krech and William Cronon's lines of argument, discussing some of the same examples as Krech (including the controversy over the Pleistocene extinctions) and citing both authors. He also owes a major debt to Alfred Crosby, previously of UT American Studies, and geographer Jared Diamond.

The book covers a very wide range of subjects, and does a very adroit job of using early chapters to set up a trio of final chapters that bring together his conclusions into a neat bundle. For example, Mann discusses the debates over demography, which run like so: Some posit, based on the difference between early travelers' accounts and later observations, that so many Indians were killed off by early epidemics transmitted by arrivistes such as De Soto that by the time more Europeans came to survey and colonize, there weren't nearly as many Indians as there were a short time before. Thus, when we estimate how many Indians used to inhabit the continent, we should assume many more than we previously thought.

Moreover, those Indians that were left were in a state of political turmoil. Mann illustrates this theory using the story of Squanto, reconstructing it in such a way that Squanto's friendliness toward the Europeans can be explained by the deaths of most of his tribesmen, leaving him vulnerable; and that the willingness of Massasoit of the Wampanoag to cooperate with the Plymouth colony could be due to the same thing (since most of M's tribesmen had died, he was left with little choice but to ally with the English against the Narragansett).

Having set this up, in later chapters Mann describes the new understandings we have of the way in which Amazonian Indians may have managed the growth of fruit trees and sowed charcoal into the soil in order to create a more human-friendly environment. He concludes that, in fact, the entire "untouched" Amazon may be a human artifact. He then adds this to the knowledge we have of the way that Indians on the East Coast burned their forests for ease of access and management of food species (see Krech, Cronon again).

Combining the knowledge we have of these systems of ecological management, with the ideas coming to the fore about the way that populations were affected by early epidemics, Mann posits that the "wild" forests that the Pilgrims saw thronging the coastline, the throngs of passenger pigeons, many of the signifiers of "abundant America", may all have been due to the recent disappearance of the groups of managing Indians who had previously kept these ecosystems at equilibrium. Wow! Now, that's what I call a revelation.

I admire the way that Mann handles the issue of the impact of these debates over the past on the current political situation. Although I was wary of the fact that the New York Sun endorsed the book, and was occasionally annoyed when Mann came down heavily on the wise-use side of environmental ethics, he definitely recognizes that the information in the book could prove useful to conservatives wanting to expiate ancestors from charges of genocide and environmental misuse (like so: "well, if the Indians were all killed by germs, and they were ecological abusers anyway, then what's the big deal?") To this end, Mann distinguishes carefully between the conventional idea of Indians at the mercy of their environment and the importance of a new understanding of Indians as creative maintainers of the landscape.

Artist's rendering of what the city around Cahokia, in modern-day Missouri, may have looked like around AD 1000-ish. This was a real revelation to me, though others may have heard of it - the mounds in that area reveal evidence of a city of 120 acres, holding between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

All of the popular press reviews of this book were totally in love with it, so there's that.

I love reading the paperback copies of these kinds of books, because the afterwords often tell you exactly what specific criticism the authors received after the publication of the hardback. Mann stepped into many already raging controversies, and he acknowledges that he was bound to make some people mad and get some arguments wrong. (The great thing about this kind of intelligent-layman book is that he has an automatic out whenever questioned on technical matters - well, at least, I think so.) The most pressing criticism is that a lot of these "revelations" are actually over fifty years old - but, as Mann says, if the general public/those in public schools aren't taught about them, they lose their importance. Hence, the book.

Yanomami family, by Victor Englebert (photographing for an advocacy group). Mann points out that by the time the Yanomami were encountered in the seventeenth century, they may already have moved from an agricultural lifestyle to a hunter-gatherer one because of the upheaval caused by disease communicated by other groups which had made contact with Europeans. Thus, the conventional image of their lives is one that fails to acknowledge the full history of the tribe before contact and assumes that they have always been so.

Vocab words:
"ramose" ("branching"); "theogony" (theology which studies the origins of gods); "coruscate" ("to give forth intermittent or vibratory flashes of light"); "fissiparous" ("producing new individuals by fission").

This book has an extensive bibliography. Secondary: Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1980); C. Ponting, Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (1991); Stephen Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982); R. Temple, The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (1998).

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