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Book Review: 1491 by Charles Mann

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I don’t know a hell of a lot about anthropology or pre-Columbian Latin American history. And like most everybody else, my knowledge of what North America was like prior to European contact consisted of the usual glowing descriptions of pristine habitats and wide expanses of wilderness where a squirrel could scamper from Illinois to Virginia without touching the ground.

1491 sure blew that notion out of the water, and opened my eyes to new ideas about how the Americas looked before the year 1492.

Very well-written, thorough, and thought-provoking, 1491 discusses how humans came to and lived upon this continent – and the evidence presented indicates it was much earlier, from different directions, and with far greater impact than traditionally believed.

Author Charles Mann covers migration routes to North America, the origins of other New World people (especially interesting in light of recent news that ancient skulls unearthed in Brazil resemble aboriginal Australians), and recent, much-elevated estimates of native populations before 1492. But it was the accounts of indigenous technology and profound environmental transformation that I found most provocative.

Although sometimes lengthy and detailed, treatments of many ancient societies, such as the Maya and Inca/Inka, are fascinating and easy to absorb even for the uninitiated reader. I had no idea of the level of sophistication that characterizes some of these societies. I was intrigued to learn what a complicated and significant accomplishment it was for pre-Columbian people to develop maize, considered one of the greatest feats of genetic engineering humans have yet achieved.

Compelling for me were the discussions on how pre-contact people altered and shaped the environment. Far, FAR from living lightly on the land, they made sweeping alterations that left little untouched. Native Americans (north of the Rio Grande) made constant use of fire, providing forage for herbivorous animals which they hunted. Through their use of fire, they were responsible for bison occupying eastern forests (if you consider woodland bison distinct from plains bison, they even shaped a species). When disease and conflict reduced the fire-utilizing human native populations, areas quickly reverted to the dense, rather than open, forests that most early historical accounts describe.

The sections on how Amazonian Indians managed the rainforest by planting “orchards” of various palms and fruiting trees, and nurturing long-term crops from notoriously poor, lean tropical soils by tending constantly-smouldering fires in a form of slash-and-char agriculture was nothing short of a revelation to me. A minimum of an eighth of non-flooded Amazonian forest is anthropogenic – shaped by humans. This is an astounding figure.

These were just a few of the things I learned in 1491. Mann turns to (and often ends up in the field with) many experts — anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, botanists, political scientists, mathematicians, geneticists, medical researchers, geographers, ethnographers, chemists, and agriculture, ceramic, and textile specialists. Yet he is able to orchestrate this vast collection of knowledge and pull it together in a coherent, scholarly yet informal, and engrossing fashion.

I love books that torpedo sacred cows, tear down long-held assumptions, and make me look at things in a different way. 1491 did all this. What a wonderful surprise to pick up a book outside my field, expecting only a change of pace, to discover plenty of material that gave me new perspectives and added richness and depth to my area of study, ecology. Understanding today’s ecological issues requires just this type of cross-disciplinary vision.

Some will call this book revisionist or even speculative, but 1491 is carefully researched and documented, balanced, and persuasive. New, challenging ideas deserve wide exposure and debate. If you or someone you know likes a little intellectual provocation, by all means get a copy of 1491.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • If you liked this, you might like to read Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters, which comes to similar conclusions for Australia and the Pacific. (And is, I understand, very broadly accepted.)