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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.