Consideration of Works Present: 1491

I just finished 1491 by Charles C. Mann.

I am very impressed.

There’s a lot to unpack in the book but fundamentally, it lays bare an assumption that I never realized I was making. One that I think we are taught continually in American culture. 

I think it’s best phrased the following way as a sort of logic proposition.

  1. We know that in the “Old World” that humans put their mark everywhere they touched. It shows everywhere. In cities. In fields. In old monuments.
  2. We know that that humans are intrinsically the same. That is, all humans share the same capabilities of cognition, dexterity, etc. We express it different ways but one of the fundamental traits of being human is our ability to shape the environment to ourselves.
  3. Why should we ever consider “New World” humans any differently?

Once this proposition is exposed—and the obvious answer is that “New World” humans are not different—we have to look at the landscape differently. I.e., the “wilderness” we think of was not a wilderness at all. It was sculpted every bit as much as the “Old World”—differently, of course. Humans in the Americas had a different tool set than those in Africa, Europe and Asia and thus we can expect different outcomes. But that’s a difference in quality not quantity.

(For purposes of this discussion I’m going to follow Mann’s utilization of the word “Indian” to describe pre-Columbian natives of the America’s. He has a long chapter where he explains why he chose that word. Since he used it, and I’m talking about his work, I’m going to use it here.)

The reason that Europeans came up with the idea that the land they saw was “natural” was that by the time they explored it, the land was empty. Most of the native population died of introduced diseases long before they saw a European. The empty land was full of game and plentiful fruits and nuts—a natural paradise. Except it wasn’t natural at all. Europeans reaped the harvest without ever knowing how cultivated it was.

There’s a certain foreshortening of history that I think Americans are susceptible to. We have incredibly short attention spans and cling to myths and beliefs against all evidence. One of the problems with the American visualization of native populations is how it’s is based on a very narrow window of time. American imagery comes from the Time of the West—the forty years or so after the Civil War and before 1900. The remainder think about Thanksgiving but when they do, often they conflate the two, dressing the Indians in garb from two hundred years later and a thousand miles away.

The history between 1492 and the present—better than five hundred years—is, of course, much broader than that. The Indians didn’t all die at once—there were long stretches of time where there was significant comingling of the cultures. But vast numbers did die.

There’s one story that rung out for me: the story of Tisquantum who has become known as Squanto in the Pilgrim story. Tisquantuam was kidnapped to Spain about 1614 and spent several years attempting to return. When he left his village and the other villages in the area around Plymouth were vibrant and numerous. The coastal area was heavily populated all the way up into Main.

When he returned, it was desolate. His home village was gone. Where there had been tens of thousands there were not tens. The Pilgrims had squatted in the ruins of his old village. Tisquantum ended up living with them. Did he live there because this was the only thing that remained of his old life? Because after his time away, and this terrible loss, he ended up having more in common with those that lived in the ruins than the remainder of other tribes?

Mann tells these sorts of stories all through the Americas from Canada down to the tip of South America. Ecological triumphs such as the mispas—areas of combined cultivation of maize, squash and legumes where the heavy feeders (maize) pulled nitrogen from the soil that had been fixed from the atmosphere by the legumes. Some areas had been continuously cultivated for hundreds of years.

There were also ecological failures. The Mound Builders of Cahokia took to the introduction of maize with a vengeance and nearly destroyed the clay soil. There are evidences of washouts when the Mississippi flooded the area. Then, those washouts disappeared. The population figured out what they had done wrong.

There are stories of the rise of cultures through wonderful vision and the fall through nothing more than mean spiritedness in interesting parallels to similar patterns in the Old World.

Man introduces a number of controversial points and brackets them with the counter arguments and why he made his decisions. You can argue with these points and you’ll be in good company—these arguments are still going on as more and more evidence is being accumulated.

Even so, it changed my perspective and I welcome that.

Highly recommended.



Consideration of Works Present: 1491 — 11 Comments

  1. Mann’s 1493 work is equally worth reading.

    This is where I learned how folding hand fans and their technology came to Europe. As well as porcelain, i.e. ‘china’. And — there were indeed occasionally samurai in the streets of what was now Mexico City.

  2. Read 1491 years ago. A good companion piece to Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” All point out how much our history classes gloss over the facts to come to strange conclusions that have little connection to reality. Will look for 1493.

  3. I got to hear Charles Mann speak recently and was very impressed by him in person as well.

    The idea that has stayed with me the most from 1491 is that the Amazon — which we all think of as the epitome of wilderness — was also managed. It’s well-known out here in California that the Indigenous Californians managed the forests and grasslands around here, using fire, encouraging some plants, and so forth. But until I read 1491 I hadn’t taken the leap from understanding that to understanding just how widespread it was.

    And even if some of the theories are upended later (as they often are in this kind of work), what Mann has done here and in 1493 is make abundantly clear just how much damage gets done to science and history by observer preconceptions. (The usual word is bias, but I think preconceptions might be a more useful word — both less loaded and broader.)

  4. Movies tend to depict Squanto as a friend to the white settlers, helping to defend them against the other Indians. I wonder if they even knew why he stayed with them.

  5. I’ve just been reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds which similarly unveils the Australian continent. It was different here. We ruined so many years of stable agriculture by plonking sheep and cows and wheat everywhere.

  6. It is also interesting (but beyond the scope of the blog entry) to consider 1491 in light of Jared Diamond’s work as well.

    It is tempting to extol one group’s virtues by contrasting them to another group’s sins. But we need to avoid that.

    The introduction of humans as novel intruders has been catastrophic for the wildlife on every continent from Australia, to New Zealand to the New World. Remember, all of the megafauna that was native there was gone shortly after human appearance.


    What I find interesting about the New World experience is the intruders learned. They didn’t keep doing the same thing over and over– the Cahokia story showed it recently but the very fact of the mispas showed it as well. I wonder if the intrinsic limitation of not having a large domestic animal forced that on them.

    • I wasn’t comparing sins so much as looking for wider patterns. South East Asia doesn’t fit the ‘settlement of new lands’ thing, because European movement into that region set up trading zones rather than settling. Australia, on the other hand, had the whole Terra Nullius thing, which fits neatly into your argument that the land was considered empty when indeed it was not. Human beings, in both cases, were considered fauna under modern legal systems, in order to promote this view.

      Mind you, it’s quite possible we’re not thinking about this from the same point of view at all, for I wouldn’t count 20,000 years as ‘shortly’. We have clear evidence of humans here (Australia) going back 65,000 years.

      • I think I’m talking about something different from “Terra nullius.” That concept seems to mean that the land belongs to no one regardless of who is already on it. This seems to me more a political definition than an actual one.

        In the case of the New World, by the time there was serious European invasion of New England, for example, the population had declined nearly 90%. The land was considered empty because it was. The initial colonizers recognized that fact from the records they left behind. Later European inhabitants seemed to conveniently forget that fact for the next three hundred years.

        • Under Terra Nullius, existing populations were often described and even treated legally as fauna. This is how it equates with the North American emptiness. There was also intentional targeting of populations using a variety of techniques. And, but European notions of population, Australia wasn’t densely populated even before this. They’re not the same situation (how could they be?) but in quite a few terrible ways they’re comparable.