Before reading 1493 I decided it would be best to finally read Mann's earlier work 1491. 1491 is subtitled New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It turns out that the stories we were most likely taught in grade school describing how American Indians lived before Columbus "discovered" them weren't terribly accurate. 1491, published in 2005, covers a plethora of recent discoveries and theories.
Primary sources of information dating from before the first Europeans are scarce. Some cultures had developed complex writing, like the Mayan hieroglyphs. But most Mayan manuscripts were destroyed by the Spanish who no doubt congratulated themselves for the enlightenment of their actions. Other pre-1492 records have survived but cannot be fully understood by modern scholars, like the Incan knotted strings called Quipu.
Then there were the very first Europeans who wrote about what they saw in the New World. This is another source of information about conditions just before the Europeans came. Some of these stories differed greatly from what was seen by visitors several generations later and the early descriptions came to be regarded as inaccurate or even fanciful. At the very beginning of 1491 Mann stresses that we not make the error of assuming, because conditions are a certain way now, that they must have been just so for ever.
For example: how many people inhabited America before Columbus arrived? Some explorers discovered vast uninhabited areas and they concluded that no one had ever lived there. In fact the native population had changed radically because the immune Europeans unwittingly brought deadly smallpox with them.
When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, [anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns] argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled the virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in places that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated. (p.101)Pre-Columbians left behind lots of archeological clues to their existence. Ruins of ancient citys, often including temples and pyramids, tools, pottery and trash. Massive earthworks in remote Bolivia that are only visible from the air. The ability of archeologists to decode these clues have improved over the years and the theories about what they mean have changed as well.
In fact, details concerning the ins and out of academic disputes over the archeological record was one of the most surprising facets of 1491. Mann tells these stories by introducing us to a lot of unfamiliar professorly types who, using rivers of ink, debated questions like
- What percentage of the indigenous population were killed by smallpox?
- When did the earliest humans arrive from Asia and did they use stone tools?
- How many people lived in the Amazon basin?
Finally, I found the information which Mann provides on the Native American's abilities to manipulate their environment the most interesting aspect of the book. Forest management using fire, changing the course of rivers, city planning and genetic manipulation are among the technologies which improved native lives in various locations. Here's just one example:
Using a different method, [botanists] concluded that Indians might have bred the modern peach palm by hybridizing palms from several areas, including the Peruvian Amazon. Whatever the origin, people domesticated the species thousands of years ago and then spread it rapidly, first through Amazonia and then up into the Caribbean and Central America. Bactris gasipaes was in Costa Rica 1,700 to 2,300 years ago and probably earlier. By the time of Columbus, one seventeenth-century observer wrote, Native Americans valued it so highly "that only their wives and children were held in higher regard."
Unlike maize or manioc, peach palm can thrive with no human attention. Tragically, this quality has proven to be enormously useful. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many Amazonian Indians, the Yanomamo among them, abandoned their farm villages, which had made them sitting ducks for European diseases and slave trading. They hid out in the forest, preserving their freedom by moving from place to place; in what Balee calls "agricultural regression," these hunted peoples necessarily gave up farming and kept body and soul together by foraging. The "Stone Age tribespeople in the Amazon wilderness" that captured so many European imaginations were in large part a European creation and a historical novelty; they survived because the "wilderness" was largely composed of their ancestors' orchards. (p331)While there are occasional dull passages in 1491 by Charles C. Mann, for the most part it is compellingly written. Although nominally it deals with an historical period which ended over 500 years ago, much of this information seems still relevant. Issues about our relationship with the descendants of the indigenous Americans and also preserving the native environment, which may not be what we think it is, are clearly affected by this information.
And it would be wonderful if some of these stories filtered down into grade school American History curricula - which I suspect hasn't kept up with modern discoveries since I was a grade school student some fifty years ago.
Another Mixed Meters review of a book with a single 15th century year as its title. 1453 has nothing to do with 1491.
I took the picture of the Mayan ruins in 2004. It is the Observatory at Chichen Itza. Here is the picture I took of the more familiar pyramid nearby.
Here are many pictures of earthworks and other ancient sites, mostly taken from the air.