The Old New World
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
Charles C. Mann. xii + 465 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. $40.
It is a rare textbook on world history that does not begin its
account of the past in the Western Hemisphere with the European
invasion that took place soon after the arrival of Christopher
Columbus in 1492. Almost all of the achievements of Pre-Columbian
cultures and civilizations have been systematically neglected or
depreciated by most Western-oriented scholars. How was it that small
bands of gold-hungry conquistadores could have defeated the armies
of empires with populations that numbered in the millions? Was much
of North America an almost empty land waiting to be developed by
more advanced colonists?
In his ambitious new book, 1491, accomplished science
writer Charles C. Mann provides answers to such questions and poses
many more that have been raised by recent anthropological and
archaeological research. He concludes that in 1491 the Western
Hemisphere was (as it had been throughout much of its long history)
"a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages,
trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved
and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere." Of course,
to archaeologists and historians of Andean and Mesoamerican
civilizations, such as the Inca, Maya and Aztec, there is nothing
particularly new or controversial in this statement—we have
long appreciated the accomplishments and demographic size of these
peoples. But what is new is Mann's revisionist view of
regions that have long been thought of as lightly populated
backwaters, far removed from the centers that were supposedly more
civilized, such as the Amazon and the eastern United States.
Mann says he had three main foci when writing this book: Indian
demography, Indian origins and Indian ecology. (In an interesting
appendix, he explains why he uses the word "Indian" to
describe the hemisphere's indigenous peoples, a choice that fits
with my own observation that American Indian friends of mine prefer
"Indian" or "Indian people" to "Native
American," which to them smacks of white paternalism and
political correctness.) Mann has done an enormous amount of
research, and although he wears his learning lightly, most of what
he says is backed up by extensive endnotes and an enormous
bibliography. And what is more important, he has taken the trouble
to visit the regions he is writing about and to interview the
principal scholars who have produced what he calls "new
revelations." He is fully aware of the controversies and
rivalries that have long been rife in this field, and it is quite
clear that although he usually gives both sides of a scholarly
dispute, he is not shy about revealing which side he favors.
This is particularly true with his treatment of New World origins,
or what some have called the "Paleo-Indian" stage or
period. Here the "fall guys" are University of Arizona
archaeologist C. Vance Haynes and his allies, who have long
championed the idea that the first Americans were the Clovis people,
who arrived via a land bridge from Siberia roughly 12,000 years ago
and in short order hunted much of the New World's big game to
extinction. This school has maintained a steady skepticism about
claims that there are "Paleo-Indian" sites dating to more
than 12,000 or 13,000 years ago, in the face of mounting
archaeological, linguistic and biological evidence that the first
migrants into the hemisphere could have arrived, possibly on
coast-hugging boats, as many as 15,000 or even 20,000 years ago.
Here I must say that, like Mann, I accept the argument that humans
were in the Americas before the Clovis hunters arrived.
By far the most interesting parts of the book are concerned with the
Amazon and Orinoco basins. When I was a graduate student, the
accepted wisdom about the tropical-forest peoples of South America
was that they consisted of little more than small bands and tribes
of immigrant Andeans, demoted from a previously civilized state to a
simple slash-and-burn farming existence by finding themselves in an
extremely limiting environment—a view that was enshrined in
the third volume of the authoritative Handbook of South American
Indians. This hypothesis is one that has long been espoused by
another of Mann's "fall guys"—the Smithsonian's
Betty J. Meggers, who is a pioneer of Amazonian archaeology, as was
her late husband, Clifford Evans.
Mann cites a vast amount of evidence that it cannot always have been
the case that only small groups lived in those forests, because the
very first Europeans to explore the Amazon saw extensive towns along
the river systems, with very large populations. Centuries later, the
agriculturalists and hunters in the Amazon and Orinoco described by
anthropologists are only the tattered survivors of the great
demographic disaster that struck all of the hemisphere's indigenous
peoples with the introduction of European epidemic diseases such as
smallpox and measles. Testifying to their vanished complexity are
the extensive raised-field patterns that can be seen from the air in
the now-denuded Beni region of eastern Bolivia and in the densely
occupied towns of the Marajoara culture, which flourished for almost
a millennium on a huge island in the mouth of the Amazon.
As Mann argues, we can now view the early Indians of the Americas
not as prisoners of their environment but as managers of it. This
was as true of South America as it was of Mesoamerica and North
America. For instance, 250 years ago vast flocks of passenger
pigeons flourished in North America, yet their bones are not often
found in sites dating to a time before the arrival of Europeans. The
only explanation can be that large Indian farming populations kept
these competing seed-eaters scarce through deliberate extirpation,
because once the Indians had been decimated by disease, the pigeon
It must be remembered that Mann is a journalist, and an advocate
journalist at that. This leads him to make claims that may be
overenthusiastic, for surely the South American forest that we see
now (or what remains of it) cannot have been totally
managed by humans, nor were Indians of the hemisphere always winners
in managing their environment—there are abundant data to show
that the Classic Maya greatly overexploited theirs, leading to the
great collapse of the 9th century a.d. Mann also has a tendency to
believe the last scholar he interviewed. Regarding Mesoamerica, he
entirely accepts the downgrading of the Olmec from their status as
the earliest civilization and mother culture of Mesoamerica to being
just one of a number of "sister cultures." But few
specialists who have actually excavated Olmec sites (including me)
would agree with this. Likewise, he uncritically believes that the
so-called "epi-Olmec" script of southern Veracruz has been
deciphered, a view that most Mesoamerican epigraphers have, in fact, rejected.
Reading 1491, one soon learns about the horrifying
devastation that Old World diseases worked throughout the New World.
This was the greatest demographic disaster ever suffered by Homo
sapiens. In Mesoamerica alone, only 10 percent of the Indian
population was alive a century after the Conquest. As Jared Diamond
has made clear in his justly renowned Guns, Germs, and
Steel, these scourges ran ahead of the European invaders, so
that the seeds of defeat were already planted in empires like the
Aztec and Inca even before the conquistadores arrived.
One wonders what would have happened had the Indians not been almost
totally lacking in immunity to these plagues. Would they, like the
enormous populations of India, have managed to throw off the
European yoke after only a few centuries? Would there now be Maya,
Aztec or Inca states in the United Nations General Assembly? Would
the Conquest ever even have taken place?
Mann has written an impressive and highly readable book. Even though
one can disagree with some of his inferences from the data, he does
give both sides of the most important arguments. 1491 is a
fitting tribute to those Indians, present and past, whose cause he
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