1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann is a singular accomplishment. Yes that’s what I said and it is not hyperbole. In my former life I dabbled in anthropology, well I got a BA in physical anthropology and was going to Nepal at one point with my mentor to study high altitude adaptations, but life intervened. Later I became more interested in archaeology and Southeastern Native Americans. This led me to work with an archaeologist doing phase I surveys and more recently I took graduate classes in archaeology and did lab work and field work so I logically went into library science. Those are my less than stellar anthro credentials but its concepts are always at work in my mind and they have a great influence on my view of the world. Given that, the book 1491 was on my radar screen when it came out, why it took six years for me to read it was due to my wariness about reading a book written by a non-anthropologist that attempts to tackle the most fought over and controversial concepts of the prehistoric and protohistoric eras of two continents.
It turns out that Mann was the perfect person to tackle these concepts. The reason is that besides being an erudite and extraordinarily well read science writer, he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt so to speak. Anthropologists are some of the most savage infighters of any discipline. Researchers cling to their pet theories to their last death rattle and many times in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. It is not rare in the history of anthropological research to have to wait for some god of the discipline to be called home before the science can advance. Mann begins with the relatively new revelation that the Amazon isn’t as wild as everyone believed and it was once home to many populous civilizations who cultivated the jungle like a garden. This reality hits home when the author examines a mound in the middle of the jungle that erosion is revealing it to be made entirely of pottery sherds. Mann asks the researcher how many sherds he thinks is in there and the researcher does a quick calculation before stating “Forty-one million.” This has been a controversy for some time whether the jungle could sustain a large civilization and scientists aligned themselves with one side or another, but the prevailing opinion until lately was that it could not. This is only one of the many changing notions of the pre-Columbus Americas.
A pristine wilderness lightly dusted with aboriginal peoples, vacuum sealed from time is what most people imagine the Americas as being before the arrival of Europeans. This view is now being challenged from new insights into the anthropology and archaeology of the Americas as well as reexaminations of the writings of the first Europeans in the “New World.” Mann deftly combines history with science in his approach to the material. The writings from the DeSoto mission, the first European expedition into the Southeast and one of the greatest horror stories of all time “he managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians,” reveal that the Mississippi was “thickly set with great towns”. But the next visitor to the same area over a century later saw the same land teeming with buffalo and no people. The DeSoto account doesn’t even mention buffalo the entire four years of the expedition. Also, everyone has heard of the passenger pigeon, mostly because it is extinct. There were accounts from the nineteenth century of a flock of passenger pigeons taking three days to pass overhead, yet archaeologists find almost no bones of the birds from Native American middens (trash). Both of these animals would have been competitors with Native Americans for food and farming land. Once the people disappeared their populations exploded. What happened to the Indians? It looks more and more like Indians were much more susceptible to European diseases than it had once been thought. They had no acquired immunity (being exposed to a disease and surviving) and because of their genetic homogeneity they had less of a spectrum of responses to the European diseases. (Their genetic homogeneity also gave them an advantage over genetic diseases. There was no cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, newborn anemia, schizophrenia, asthma, nor juvenile diabetes.) This combination left them with almost no defense in the face of small pox, measles, and influenza, which virtually wiped out a whole world of cultures that had been flowering independently from the Old World for over ten thousand years.
I’m not even touching the surface of all the topics that Mann examines, but here is a list of some more of them: the Clovis first controversy, Mayan philosophy, Incan khipu writing (knots on a string), the fact that the Meso-Americans were the first society in the world to use the zero as well as the first to genetically manipulate an organism as they did in their creation of maize, and Peru was the second place in the world to form a government (after the Fertile Crescent, but they may, in the end, turn out to be the first). To sum up, Mann is a maestro in his deep understanding of the pre-Columbian Americas and lucky for us he is able to share his knowledge with masterful prose. I can’t wait to read his new book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.