Bookshelf: 1491

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Serendipitously, I picked up a copy of Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, primarily because of its attractive cover; it's also got handsome illustrations and good charts. I got it even though the jacket says that the author lives in the left-wing haven of Amherst, Mass. Fortunately, the book turned out not to be left-wing pap about the evil Dead White Males. Instead Mann, who also writes for Science and the Atlantic, examines archaeological and scientific evidence in an attempt to see what the pre-Columbian Americas were like. I'm no expert in the field, but I found this a fascinating, thoughtful, careful treatment of the subject. I hadn't expected to finish the book, but I was drawn in to each chapter and enjoyed reading it very much.

Mann's conclusion: The Americas were more heavily populated, and with more advanced civilizations, than most of us are inclined to think. But they were also terribly vulnerable to European diseases, and so most of their people died after exposure, and much of the civilization they developed pretty much disappeared. Most of us who have read about this subject are inclined to think that only in Mesoamerica and Andean Peru did advanced civilizations develop. But we think that, Mann suggests, only because the Spanish invaders encountered and documented these civilizations before European disease struck.

In other parts of the Americas, European diseases got there ahead of the European conquerors. The New England Indians were already affected by the time the Pilgrims arrived. Amazonians were exposed to deadly microbes before the area was systematically explored. Mann notes that DeSoto, in traveling up the Mississippi Valley in the 1540s, saw vast numbers of people living in settlements amid farm fields, while LaSalle, the next European to make it there, in the 1680s, saw very few people and hordes of buffalo. Also, Orellana, the opportunistic adventurer who first descended into the Amazon, saw many people living and farming on its banks; later explorers found only seemingly primitive tribes like the Yanomamo living far away from the river's main channels.

Mann portrays the Indians (or Native Americans, as he sometimes says) not as paragons of virtue but as human beings who built civilizations of varying characteristics that are worthy of respectful attention. He portrays the Europeans similarly, not as vicious conquerors but also as people worthy of respectful attention—people who inadvertently spread what turned out to be deadly diseases in ways of which they had no knowledge.

Mann's conclusion has important implications for environmental issues. The East Coast forests that the first Europeans saw, the vast herds of buffalo and crowds of passenger pigeons that their descendants found when they headed west, the seemingly wild Amazon forests that Brazilians encountered—these were not an ancient, untouched wilderness but were rather the results of vast changes in the environment that occurred when the large numbers of human beings who had lived there suddenly vanished. There was much more agriculture there before. And it wasn't as environmentally harmful, he says. If there were many fewer trees in Henry David Thoreau's 19th-century New England than in the Pilgrims' 17th-century New England, there were many fewer trees in the Indians' 1491 New England—and there are many more trees in today's New England than there were in Thoreau's. The Amazonians lived off the fruits of trees and the fish in the rivers without seriously damaging the tree cover that today's environmentalists want to preserve on the theory that it's pristine wilderness.

It wasn't pristine wilderness, Mann says, but gardens. His thoughtful concluding paragraphs:

"Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world's largest gardens.

"Gardens are fashioned for many purposes, but with different tools, but all are collaborations with natural forces. Rarely do their makers claim to be restoring or rebuilding anything from the past; and they are never in full control of the results. Instead, using the best tools they have and all the knowledge that they can muster, they work to create future environments.

"If there is a lesson it is that to think like the original inhabitants of these lands we should not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future."