1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2006)
Charles C. Mann (1955-)
Our high school and college text books have misled us. Less surprisingly, so too have many of the movies we’ve seen. In the engaging and thought-provoking book 1491, Charles Mann reviews the new discoveries in archeology, biology and other fields that have led many historians and archeologists to re-think their understanding of the Indian civilizations that existed throughout the Americas in the centuries before Columbus’ arrival initiated what can truly be described as a tsunami of change in the hemisphere. And, as Mann points out, most of what we learn in school and see in the movies remains untouched by what has been learned over the last half-century.
In his book, Mann has focused on three subjects for which recent discoveries have generated contentious and still simmering disputes: the number of Indians living in pre-Columbian Americas; the origins of the paleo-Indians in the Americas and the large and varied civilizations they had developed; and the impact the Indians had on the environment. (I include a separate ‘appendix’ below, after my main review, which goes more deeply into some of the details in the book that I found particularly intriguing.)
In the first section of his book, Mann examines the contested debate over the size of the Indian population in the Americas in 1491. He describes why many researchers have now concluded that the Indian population was much larger than previously believed --- which also leads them to the unavoidable conclusion that as a result of the diseases introduced by European explorers and colonists significantly larger numbers of Indians died off in the century after Columbus arrived than previously assumed. Mann reviews the evidence that has led historians to these radically larger population numbers, such as death records and accounts of the earliest Spanish explorers, and he describes the new discoveries in human biology that support it. The death and disintegration due to disease that is now considered to have occurred throughout the western hemisphere staggers the mind. An appreciation for the extent of it is critical to explaining the misunderstandings that have developed around the history of pre-Columbian Indian civilizations; misunderstandings now being overturned by the new revelations that Mann cites, and that are covered in the remainder of the book.
The second section discusses new understandings about the origin of the Indians --- when, from where and how they may have come to the Americas, and the complexity and variety of cultures and civilizations they developed throughout the hemisphere. Mann recounts the earliest origin theories, such as the thought that the Indians were descended from the Lost Tribe of Israel. He then goes into detail describing the Clovis Consensus that we are so familiar with from our history classes and that held sway for much of the 20th century, which stated that paleo-Indians had come across the Bering Straits during the last ice age, when low sea levels created a land passage between Asia and the Americas. In recent years, new evidence has led many historians and archaeologists to doubt the Clovis Consensus, and Mann outlines what has been learned, and the new theories that are being put forward to fill in the vacuum as the Clovis Consensus loses support.
Also in this second part, Mann reviews evidence that counters the familiar image of pre-Columbian Indians as having lived in small groups with little cultural development. He describes the large Indian civilizations that formed in the area of modern-day Peru and that eventually spread throughout western South America, and also those that developed throughout Mesoamerica. These civilizations were characterized by impressive cities, large trading networks, a high degree of specialization among workers, and often significant cultural development. Their destruction plays a prominent role in his story too: Mann turns on its head our school book understanding of how the largest of these civilizations in 1491, the Inca and the Aztec, fell so quickly to the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500’s.
The final third of the book presents recent discoveries that have led to a completely new appreciation for the extent of the impact of Indian civilizations on their environment --- a refutation of the image of the Americas as having been a largely pristine, untouched wilderness when the European colonists arrived. The Indians improved the soil to make it more fertile for crops, domesticated plants and trees, and developed agricultural societies that supported large populations in areas throughout the Americas. The common image of Indians living but lightly on the land has been challenged now by a variety of new evidence.
In a short concluding chapter, Mann makes the argument that the Indians provided the European colonists with the inspiration for the philosophy of individual liberty that would eventually become the centerpiece of the U.S. constitution, and others around the world.
Mann refers throughout the book to the role that outside forces play in the discussions of how to interpret and re-interpret archaeological and historical evidence of the Indians in the years before Europeans first arrived in the Americas. As new evidence challenges established theories of pre-Columbian Indian civilizations, including their origin, development and impact on their environment, and as well our understanding of the effect of disease on their population in the first century after Columbus’ arrival, Mann describes how groups far outside history and archaeology engage in what become heated debates. Environmentalists, Indian rights activists and political groups all have an interest in how the history of the Indians is described, and are not shy about trying to highlight the evidence and interpretations that support their causes and ignore what doesn’t.
To add to the complexity of the debates, a particular group can push different and opposing aspects from the various histories of the Indian world. As an example, Mann notes that the image described by some historians of the Indians as having practiced a caring stewardship of the land will be cited by some environmentalists as a golden age that we should learn from to protect our natural world, while other environmentalists will refer to the supposed die-off of large mammals in the Americas attributed by some historians to the Indians hunting them to extinction as a cautionary tale for how we need to deal more carefully with our limited resources. Throw into the mix jealously guarded academic reputations, and what would seem from the outside to be a sedate search for ‘the facts’ becomes in Mann’s telling a full-scale battle to establish and own ‘the truth.’
On a more melancholy note, Mann also mourns the knowledge and more importantly the different way of thinking about the world and our place in it that we lost with the destruction of the Indian civilizations, first weakened by disease and death and then overrun by conquistadors and colonists. As an example, he describes the development of poetry and philosophy by the Mexica peoples (in modern terms referred to as the Aztecs), which had just begun to flower in the century or so before Cortés and his army arrived, and of which only bits and pieces are left. Mann asks, what might have been?
Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!
Throughout the book, Mann takes care with the words he uses; he even includes an appendix Loaded Words that directly address the difficulty of picking one word over another to describe an aspect of Indian history. (Even the word ‘Indian’ itself comes up for consideration.) One example of his explicit consideration of the words historians use revolves around the recent discoveries in human biology and genetics that have been used to back up new theories of Indian susceptibility to European diseases. (I go more into detail on these findings below.) Mann takes care to point out that “Indians’ relative genetic homogeneity does not imply genetic inferiority.” But, however sympathetic one might be to his intent, it seems at times like a question of semantics: Mann cites historians who now believe that as much as 95% of the Indian population may have died due principally to diseases brought over by the Europeans, and a substantial support for that large number in the absence of direct evidence is based on the genetic differences that existed between the Indians and Europeans. I would argue that one may be convinced that Indians were the equals of Europeans as human beings, but still consider that in the area of resistance to one another’s diseases the Europeans were superior, genetically speaking.
But, this nitpicking aside (which I suppose only supports the theme of his appendix Loaded Words), Charles Mann has written an engrossing review of the current thinking about the history of Indians in the Americas and the on-going debates that recent revelations have initiated. He animates what might otherwise have been a dry recounting of facts with quotes from historians he has interviewed directly and archeologists he has accompanied on expeditions throughout the Americas. With similar success he uses the histories and understandings that have been assembled about the pre-Columbian and early colonial periods in the Americas to paint colorful narratives that help put us inside the heads of key historical figures at critical moments, as well as of inhabitants of ancient cities going about their lives. He transmits to the reader on every page the excitement he himself clearly felt as he went on the adventure of discovery that led to this work.
Pre-Columbian Indian Population
Significant new evidence, and the understanding of old evidence in a new light, suggests that the New World was home to many, many more people when Columbus first made land-fall on Hispaniola than previously thought --- and, in the corollary to that view, that the number of Indians who died in the first century after Columbus arrived was much, much higher than previously assumed. According to Mann, several researchers since the early 1900’s have argued this point but their claims fell mostly on deaf ears. Then, in 1966, the anthropologist Henry Dobyns published a paper summarizing his years of research in South and Central America, in which he concluded that the evidence indicates that Indian populations were reduced by as much as 95% within the first 130 years after 1492 through diseases such as small pox, and that much of this death was invisible to the colonists as they spread throughout the Americas:
When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, [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 place that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.
As Mann recounts, these claims generated significant controversy among historians and anthropologists, a debate that he says continues unabated. In this first section of his book, however, he presents persuasive evidence from a variety of researchers that support the idea that waves of death hit the native peoples of the Americas in the years after 1492, leaving weakened and sometimes completely destroyed Indian nations in its path. Reports from early explorers that spoke of stretches of rivers such as the Mississippi as thick with Indian towns --- stories largely discounted when later explorers found only wilderness --- are being examined again in a new light by researchers.
Mann also describes new discoveries in biology and genetics that could help to explain how the death rate could have been so high in the Americas, when the worst plagues that swept through Europe had ‘only’ on the order of a 35% mortality rate. The more commonly understood vulnerability of the Indians lies with their lack of previous exposure to smallpox and other diseases brought over by the Europeans. However, Mann cites recent research that also reveals a genetic aspect to the Indian’s vulnerability, associated with what are called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs).
HLAs play a kind of housekeeping role inside our cells, moving bits of debris and viruses to the surface of the cell, to be then ejected through the cell wall; once outside the cell, the viruses are discovered by our white blood cells and destroyed. Critical to Mann’s telling is that “HLAs carry their burdens to the surface by fitting them into a kind of slot. If the snippet doesn’t fit into the slot, the HLA can’t transport it, and the rest of the immune system won’t be able to “see” it.” We all have different types of HLAs in our bodies, and so when a particular virus moves through a population, some people will not get sick because they happen to have HLAs with the appropriate slots for that virus. New research, however, has discovered that Indians have a very limited variety of HLAs, possibly because they are mostly ancestors of a few, relatively small, original populations which migrated to the Americas. Thus they were extremely susceptible to viruses which as a population their bodies were not prepared to fight off. As an example of the impact, a plot the Mann includes in the book shows the results of two researcher’s investigations in Central America showing a series of eleven epidemics (of half-a-dozen different diseases) that reduced the population from just over 25 million in 1518 to fewer than 1 million by 1623.
Mann notes that compounding these two types of biological vulnerabilities would be the effect of such massive waves of epidemics on the societies impacted. With so many deaths in such short periods of time, the infrastructure of towns and nations would collapse, and groups and families would break apart, leading to further deaths from starvation and spasms of war. Indian nations would either be left significantly weakened, or dissolve completely, leaving people struggling for existence, either in settlements that no longer had the critical mass of people and skills to effectively survive or as nomads following the seasonal availability of food. The conquests of Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, in which a few soldiers defeated large entrenched civilizations, can be understood in a new light in such a context. Mann recounts both the traditional explanations for the success of these two Spanish conquistadors, and how they are now being reevaluated based on recent discoveries and new interpretations of old information.
In the second section of his book, Mann opens with a review of early explanations, from colonialist times up through the 19th century, of the origins of the Indians in the western hemisphere. (One such theory was that the Indians were the descendents of the Lost Tribes of Israel, which according to the Bible traveled to a distant, uninhabited land.) He then describes how historians and archaeologists settled on what is called the ‘Clovis consensus’, which for much of the 20th century became the indisputable theory of the Indians origin. This theory, Mann reports, is still taught in schools today, despite the fact that by the end of the century it was coming under increasing fire as conflicting evidence challenged its fundamental tenets
The Clovis consensus gets its name from a site near Clovis, New Mexico, where tools and animal bones were found that were for a long time the oldest known man-made objects in the hemisphere. The dating of these and similar objects at many other sites to a time, roughly 13,000 years ago, just after the last ice age would have provided a land-bridge between Asia and North America across the Bering Straits, led historians and archaeologists to argue that Clovis people were the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. When later evidence seemed to indicate that there would have been a land corridor between the retreating glaciers from what is now northern Canada down into the center of the continent, and a huge die-off of many larger species also was found to have occurred over the same time period, the Clovis theory became a nearly iron-clad consensus: groups of people had crossed over the Bering Straits from Asia, had traveled on a land corridor between the retreating glaciers down into the heart of the North American continent, and had killed all the large mammals along the way in an orgy of hunting, continuing southwards as the animal populations around them were hunted to extinction.
Mann reports, however, that more recent evidence has cast doubt on the Clovis consensus. The land corridor between the retreating glaciers is now believed to have still been relatively inhospitable during the time the Indians would have moved through it, and at any rate no evidence of either Indian populations or big game animals has been found in that corridor. Also, at the same time that the large mammals disappeared, so did many other smaller mammals and shellfish, suggesting there may have been another cause for the overall die-off besides human hunting. And, many Clovis sites also show little evidence of big-game hunting, with those that do containing remains from only a couple of different species. Finally, there has been more recently discovered archaeological evidence of human habitation in the Americas significantly before 13,000 years ago; this evidence supports studies in the area of molecular biology that have used mutation rates in mitochondrial DNA to suggest that Indians arrived in the Americas in several separate groups, with one as early as 33,000 to 43,000 years ago.
Although no new consensus has formed to replace Clovis, Mann notes that some researchers are suggesting possibilities such as Indians having traveled by boat down the Pacific coast of North America, hopping between small ice-free areas on the shore that are now believed to have existed during the ice age. Others have suggested that aborigines may have traveled by boat from Australia. All that is clear at this point is that the Clovis Consensus no longer has a lock on the debate into the origins of Indians in the Americas.
Pre-Columbian Indian Civilizations
Moving on from the debate over the Indian’s origins, Mann describes two areas in the Americas in which major civilizations developed independently, one in the Peruvian littoral and the second in Mesoamerica.
Between the Pacific Ocean and the mountain ranges of the Andes in what is modern day Peru, archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation going back about 10,000 B.C. Due to climate patterns driven by the Pacific trade winds and a rain shadow formed by the mountains, the land is extremely dry and lifeless, except along the fifty or so rivers that flow down from the mountains to the sea. Mann reports evidence of communities growing up along the river banks, moving up into the highlands in the summer and down to the coast in the winter. By 8,000 B.C. human settlements had appeared throughout western South America.
Mann focuses on an area known as Norte Chico, north of present day Lima, where evidence has been found of a civilization that had formed by at least 3,200 B.C. that included large complex sites with temples, and that appears to have been formed around a trading centers on the coasts (fishing) and in the highlands (cotton, fruit and vegetables), each needing the other group's products to survive. The sites are not strategically located, and have no defensive fortifications, and there has been no evidence of warfare found. There remains debate as to how the society was structured, because there is not sufficient agriculture to support the population size that appears to have existed, and so this may have been the only known civilization to have a maritime foundation; others argue that the society still had an agricultural basis, in the cotton that was needed for the nets to fish.
Referred to by Mann as the ‘children’ of the Norte Chico civilization, the Wari and the Taiwanaku developed to the east and south of present day Lima. The Wari first appear on the archaeological scene around 500 A.D., and seem to have ruled through commercial and technological supremacy, with little evidence of warfare. The Taiwanaku first show up around 900 B.C., developing into an important center by around 300 B.C., and expanding outwards from their main city starting around 100 B.C., again seemingly not based on warfare, but rather on the apparent power of its state religion and imperial ideology; the Taiwanaku’s main city appears to have been a constant changing mix of large, impressive public structures, with little evidence of markets or other private works. The two societies met and overlapped around 750 A.D. in modern day southern Peru, and appear to have lived peacefully, but largely independently, side-by-side. There is little evidence of exchange of goods or cultural traditions, though they lived in neighboring communities in an overlapping line of contact between the nations. By 800 A.D., for reasons that are not known, the two societies began pulling back toward their centers. Into the vacuum came the Chimar Empire which borrowed characteristics from both the Wari and the Taiwandaku, and eventually encompassed 700 miles of the Pacific coast, before being defeated, in 1450, by the expanding empire of the Inkas.
Turning to Mesoamerica, Mann begins with the development of maize as a crop. The earliest evidence shows that around 11,500 years ago, in what is now Mexico, paleo-Indians lived in caves and hunted deer, horse, antelope and jackrabbit. By 9,500 years ago, except for deer, these animals had disappeared due to hunting and a gradually drying climate, and people had turned to forging and gathering; they were also on the path to creating maize.
Mann goes into significant detail reviewing the history of maize, a critical crop around which much of the agriculture of the Americas came to be based, and for which there are more than 50 genetically distinguishable types. Despite all that is known about maize its development path from a wild ancestor has not been established, though it is clearly a domesticated crop: with its thick husk, it is incapable of propagating itself. Its closest known wild ancestor is Teosinte, which, unlike other wild ancestors of now domesticated crops, is not a practical food source. Teosinte also differs from other wild grasses in another key way: most wild grasses require only a single gene mutation to grow in a manner that holds the grain to the shaft long enough to easily harvest it, while Teosinte has 16 genes that control this feature and would have to mutate. Mann reviews some of the modern theories for the origin of corn, saying that the debate continues, though all agree that the development of maize some 6000 years ago was “a bold act of conscious biological manipulation.”
In addition to maize itself, Mann describes an agricultural technique that grew up around maize farming, known as MILPA. It consists of planting as many as a dozen crops in a single field, including maize, avocados, squash, beans, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato and other crops. The beans are able to use the maize as a ladder, while providing through their roots important nutrients to the maize, and the various crops are nutritional complements of one another.
Pre-Columbian Indian Impact on their Environment
In the final third of his book, Mann presents evidence that Indian civilizations of the Americas had significantly greater impact on their environment than was previously thought, and that they in fact managed their environment to a significant degree. The examples he gives showing the extent of this active working of the landscape are difficult to square with our modern day image of the pre-Columbian Indians as having been homeless nomads who passed lightly over the land taking only a the bit they needed to survive. These views still have detractors according to Mann, but recent discoveries have swung the debate in favor of this new viewpoint.
In the Amazon basin it is now thought that the Indians applied specific techniques over many years to enhance otherwise extremely poor soil to allow crops to be grown. Scoured by intense rain and heat over many millennia, the natural surface of the Amazon basin is left nearly devoid of nutrients, “a wet desert.” The nutrients that remain are stored in the vegetation, which rapidly and efficiently absorb any decomposing matter through their root systems.
The modern slash and burn agricultural techniques allow a few years of crops to be grown, from the sudden burst of nutrients provided by the burning of the trees, but after those few years the nutrients are used up. Normally the forest gradually retakes the open land, but, if left barren too long, the soil turns into a permanent, brick-hard wasteland. And, the effort required to carry out this agricultural approach means that in past times (before steel and machines), it could not have supported a large-scale civilization.
In recent years, archaeologists have discovered significant areas of land along the Amazon river that appear to have been intentionally transformed into cultivatable soil. The land has huge amounts of broken pottery worked into the soil, and a significant amount of charcoal, which ‘holds’ organic material. The thinking is the Indians used a slash and char technique, still seen in a few areas of the Amazon today, in which the trees are cut, but are converted into charcoal in low intensity smoking fires, and the charcoal then turned into the soil. The charcoal, once added, remains for long periods of time in the soil, different from the very short term nutrient boost provided by hot fires of the slash and burn technique.
The Indians of the Amazon also purposefully transformed the forests of the Amazon river basin in many areas from a wide variety of trees to a more limited set of fruit bearing trees --- essentially creating huge, natural orchards. These orchards are not readily visible when passing over or through the rain forest, because the orchards differed from the modern conception of an orchard as row upon row of the same fruit tree. In the Amazon, the orchards were still forest-like, only that the trees propagated were the ones providing desired fruit. Recent research in the Amazon has shown unnatural concentrations of particular fruit trees in certain areas, relative to their average presence throughout the rest of the forest.
In North America, Indian cultures are now thought to have cultivated large areas of land, while hunting for meat but also to control animals that competed for their crops, such as deer, bison, raccoons and turkeys. Once the diseases that came after Columbus’ arrival reduced the Indian population to levels that transformed their agricultural lifestyle into a nomadic one, the populations of these animals exploded in the absence of their main predator. Then, when the Europeans spread out over the continent, they found only small populations of Indians where previously large communities had been reported, and an abundance of game animals.
Examples of animals that are now thought to have had their population explode in the post-Columbus Americas are the passenger pigeon and the bison. The colonists experienced the passenger pigeons as
‘travel[ing] in massive assemblies, billions strong, that rained enough excrement to force people indoors. As a boy [the conservationist John] Muir saw a mob of birds sweep “thousands of acres perfectly clean of acorns in a few minutes.” … the artist and naturalist John J. Audubon saw a flock passing overhead in a single cloud for three whole days.
The birds were easy to hunt and prized for their meat, and colonists and Indians alike hunted and ate them. However, archaeologists have recently noted that in pre-Columbian sites, the bones of pigeons are seldom found, leading to the conclusion that the pigeons were seldom a part of the Indians earlier diet. Plenty of other bird bones were found at the sites, and sites were investigated near what were in the colonist’s time huge roosting locations for pigeons. The conclusion is that the pigeons were relatively rare in pre-Columbian times, having been hunted to a relatively small population. Only after their original hunters --- the Indians --- were eliminated from the scene by disease and death, did the pigeon population suddenly explode into the numbers observed years later by the early colonists. Similar conclusions are being drawn for other animal species, such as bison, deer and elk; many archaeologists are now rethinking and reducing their estimates of the pre-Columbian populations of these animals. Mann concludes: "The Americans seen by the first colonists were teeming with game …. But the continents had not been that way for long. Indeed, this Edenic world was largely an inadvertent European creation."
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