1491 – Charles Mann

The companion to Mann’s other book named after a year in the late 15th century, 1493, 1491 is a history of the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans, reporting on the best consensus of recent scholarship. Although he drying states at one point that his thesis is merely that this topic is worthy of more than seven pages, I think his argument is a good deal more sophisticated, namely that despite the popular myth that the Americas consisted of vast stretches of unspoiled nature, these continents were in effect vast gardens that had been shaped by millions of native inhabitants.

As was also true in 1493, Mann should be lauded for his lucid explanation of long-standing academic schisms. One of the problems with a book of this sort, as Mann notes, is that there are times when there is no consensus, in part because there are times when the sources are, shall we say, speculative. For instance, the chapter “Pleistocene Wars” is dedicated to wars between scholars over what happened during the Pleistocene, rather than wars that took place then. This is the chapter Mann gives to populating the Americas, the so-called Clovis Culture, and the possibility of multiple waves of migration. In this example, Mann delves into the controversies over dating the scattered bits of evidence, but in others he acknowledges more sinister problems with the evidence, such as how the European colonists eliminated the knowledge bases of the cultures they encountered.

You will note that I have not mentioned a single specific native group. Mann goes through many, though certainly not all, in some detail, but the themes are the same again and again. Native Americans (the collective term I still reflexively use, though Mann has an appendix dedicated to the problems with it) were technologically, mathematically, and agriculturally sophisticated in ways that are not often appreciated by people accustomed to European land-use patterns and intellectual culture, or who are deceived by giving priority to the empirical evidence of native culture that dates to generations after European contact.

The hemisphere described by Mann was teeming with human life in 1491, so densely populated that the colonists found themselves unable to stay. Within a few decades most of those people were killed by European diseases, which allowed laughably small numbers of men to conquer enormous swathes of territory with the help of native allies, particularly in South America, and allowed previously-controlled species like the bison and carrier pigeons to undergo explosive population growth—ironically shooting past the carrying capacity only to become associated with the natural bounty of the Americas. Mann also offers a welcome correction to the noble savage myth that Native Americans were endowed with a preternatural connection with the land, arguing instead that their ability to steward the environment developed from past failures and a willingness to develop sustainable practices.

In sum, I enjoyed 1491 a hair more than 1493, but they work in tandem to ask and answer some big questions about the history of the world.

ΔΔΔ

I had never given any thought to reading Philip Roth’s books until hearing people talk about his work after he passed away this summer and thinking that they sounded up my alley. I’m just now starting that process, with his alternate history The Plot Against America.