Reviewed in the United States on February 19, 2019
Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491, provides us with an eye opener about the pre-Columbus populations of the North and South America. It is not an easy read: it is very detailed and well researched with references to critical scientific studies. It is not a chronological or systematic account, and this makes the book somewhat disjointed. Mann’s main intents were to examine Indian demography, Indian origins and Indian ecology.
In my opinion, he is not successful in the first objective of describing Indian demography. However, I doubt there are enough research available to tackle this objective. They may never be enough research as there were multiple occupations of land by unknown populations throughout the period from the first arrivals of the peoples loosely described as Indians to the present day. Also, the populations were dynamic, growing and shrinking depending on the social and natural environments of various groups of Indians. The task may just be too difficult to build a record of Indian populations prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Mann has tried to report the research faithfully but the Indian populations of Western United States and that of Argentina in my opinion, not well researched, and thus understated in this book. It is also possible that populations reported are also understated.
Mann has been more successful in the second two objectives and particularly the third. I think the overriding theme of this book is that pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas shaped their environment to fit their needs, no more than we do today and certainly, no less. Where we think that that current forests are wild and untouched by man, in fact, they are the results of previous inhabitation of the lands. There is no more a representation of this than the forests in the vicinity of the Amazon River. However, after the demise of the inhabiting culture, what remains is an overgrowth of plant and animal life. And this is true in North and Central America as well! It can be said definitively based on research that the Indian populations did not live lightly on the land.
I found the book at the first reading contradictory of what I had been taught of American Indians after growing up in Montana and having lived with Yupik Eskimos (technically, Eskimos are not Indians,) in Western Alaska. In the first Chapter, Mann indicates that I would have this experience. But I find the research he quotes valid and confirmatory of his arguments. In addition, he often provides alternative arguments. Mann is not the author of this research, but the reporter of the research.
Before reading and finishing the book, I did not read reviews of it. Thus, as I read it, I was amazed at the information and oftentimes, skeptical. However, I read several of the research reports referenced. Then, on finishing the book, I read several reviews both positive and critical. The book is widely acclaimed. The critical reviews stem mainly from people who found the book too detailed for their tastes and too difficult to read. One of the critical reviews was from an interpreter of the Cahokia site in Illinois who questions Mann’s statements which originated from Professor Woods. However, this same interpreter does not provide alternative research to support his claims.
There probably is nothing more understood in the United States, and perhaps the World, than the pre-Columbus North and South American cultures. There are many reasons for this.
First and foremost, Columbus in his search for Asia did not know the Americas nor had he ever been to the coastlines of Asia. Therefore, on reaching America, he thought he had reached Asia and thought the peoples he witnessed where of India. Thus, he named them “Indians” and the name, despite the confusion, has remained to this day and is a global term for all of the pre-Columbus inhabitants even though there are major distinctions in their cultures and genetics. While a number of the various tribes and nations object to the use of the word “Indian,” no better term has emerged that all will accept. For a discussion of this, see Appendix A of 1491.
Second, most of the pre-Columbus inhabitants of the Americas either did not have writing or not a form of writing recognized by the European explorers and invaders. The result was that much of the written information of the pre-Columbus inhabitants had been lost either through decay of whatever records there were or through the willful destruction of the records by the invaders. Where there were no known records, Europeans interested in pre-Columbus cultures had to rely on the inhabitants themselves who were often recent transplants to the regions.
Third, the pre-Columbus population of the Americas has been estimated from the finds of various archeological sites to be as high as 125 million people. Yet when early European scholars arrived to study and record Indian cultures, they found only remnants of the populations. It is accepted that European diseases such as small pox, influenza, and others, killed the vast majority of the populations that existed and that this happened in a very short time after the arrival of the first Europeans. For example, De Soto records thousands of people living in current day Arkansas. When La Salle visited this area a century later, he could find almost no traces of man. The estimates that Charles Mann seems to believe that the population loss was 95%! While this is arguable, it is also creditable based on eye witness accounts of the effects of small pox on various indigenous peoples. Thus, many Europeans recorded for history the shell-shocked left overs of populations essentially no longer functional.
For these reasons, the attempt to build a history of pre-Columbus cultures will be problematic. Also, the popular cultures we have today in the United States have built up fantasies around the Indian cultures which are also promulgated in our school systems. These have influenced past researchers trying to understand Indian cultures. And they made, now known, mistakes in their assumptions and conclusions. As Mann clearly shows, the research today using more modern techniques is building a much different picture. The archeology of the Americas shows that we need to question almost everything that we have been taught.
It is taught that the Indians cross the land bridge at Beringia during the last ice age (13,000 years ago,) and then descended South using a narrow strip of land near the current Continental Divide which did not ice over some 12, 000 years ago. Then it would take another 1000 years to enter and populate South America. Yet, the evidence suggests something different also happened. The ice-free path proposed has yet to yield artifacts that would support such a theory. It is possible that perhaps the path was the Western seaboard of North America, though. The genetics of certain Indians in Amazonia are distinct from those of North America. An archaeological dig in Southern Chiles found human artifacts that predated the supposed Beringia crossing. There is evidence of culture at Painted Rock Cave near Santarem on the Amazon River that is contemporary with the Clovis culture which is the earliest found in North America. Thus, while Beringia may be part of the story, it not all of the story on how the Americas were populated. More research is still needed here.
Another major point assumed was that the Indian cultures did not have the sophistication of European cultures in pre-Columbus societies. Research finds that the Olmec, who were inhabitants of Mexico approximately 1800 B.C., were using the number zero in its mathematical form well before it was invented in India a few centuries A.D. They created a 365-day calendar more accurate than the calendars in use in Europe. In addition, they were recording the Olmec history on folded books of bark paper, now called codices. Many of these were destroyed by the Spanish when they were found, so only a few remain extant. It can be said their cultures were different than those of the European but no less complex.
Overall, this book while not easy to read, if a very worthwhile read. I feel this is a work in progress: new research will emerge on the Indian populations of the Americas. Mann has provided a current state of the art understanding of Indian cultures in the Americas based on known and referenced research. It is clear that what schools are teaching about Indian populations needs to change and acknowledge the results of this research.