1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 465 pages, $30
In 1950 the anthropologist Allan R. Holmberg published his classic text Nomads of the Longbow, a study of the Bolivian natives known as the Sirionó. Holmberg had lived with the Indians and studied their habits for two years. His assessment, which generations of scholars took as gospel and applied to other indigenous groups, was that the Sirionó were an unimpressive people who had existed for thousands of years without innovation or progress. He claimed the Sirionó had no real history prior to European contact, when Western influences at last put them on a path to genuine social evolution.
Holmberg was wrong. For one thing, he overlooked linguistic and archeological evidence that suggested both recent migration and significant past construction in the region. Holmberg also missed the fact that his subjects were impoverished and adrift for a reason: The fewer than 150 people he studied were the last survivors of more than 3,000 Sirionó who had been nearly wiped out by epidemics in the 1920s. The Sirionó with whom he lived were one generation removed from the destruction of 95 percent of their populace. As Charles C. Mann explains in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, drawing broad conclusions from studying those remaining Indians was an error akin to studying newly liberated concentration camp survivors after World War II and concluding that all Jews are by nature malnourished and sickly. Yet Holmberg’s assertions and others like them have shaped mainstream understandings of Native American history and life.
Mann, a writer for Science and The Atlantic, wrote 1491 to present to nonspecialist readers discoveries made in recent decades by historians, archeologists, biologists, and ethnologists studying the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These revelations offer an alternative to what Mann terms “Holmberg’s Mistake,” the problematic assumption that American Indians had no agency—no ability to act—and were, in the historian James Axtell’s sarcastic words, “a whole continent of patsies,” unwilling and unfit to challenge the natural course of colonization and civilization that followed Columbus over the Atlantic Ocean.
Most of the discoveries Mann considers are a matter of consensus among many experts and will not surprise scholars of Native American studies. Few, however, have made the leap to college textbooks, general histories, and common knowledge among educated laypeople. Politics has much to do with this failure. Ill-conceived and outdated stereotypes of American Indians underlie current public policy and the identities of the colonial enterprise’s heirs. Challenges to the comforting narrative of the savage Indian and the inevitable triumph of Western civilization are not treated simply as matters of scholarship and history but instead are drawn inexorably into ideological debates. What should be the subject of rigorous study quickly becomes a political football.
Such was the case with the “Iroquois influence” thesis in the 1980s. Talking heads on both the right and left squawked in protest when scholars examined connections between the Iroquois Confederation’s Great Law of Peace and the political models espoused by the U.S. founding fathers. For such critics, proof of various Founders’ admiration for the Iroquois constitution was beside the point; they lined up to take shots at the idea without addressing or engaging the evidence. The opponents ranged from the right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who seemed peeved at the thought that his favorite white men had not invented everything themselves in a vacuum, to the leftist ethnohistorian Frederick Hoxie, who dismissed the thesis as “contributionist” history.
Mann argues that some experts have been equally guilty of forsaking academic inquiry in favor of ideology. Scholars who make new discoveries often have to fight their way through not only mainstream public indifference or resentment but also the hostility of colleagues with different political agendas. Mann presents a telling case study in his investigation of theories about the Amazon. The field has been dominated by the Smithsonian archeologist Betty J. Meggers’ 1971 book Counterfeit Paradise, which proposes that Amazonian Indians, after growing up to but not past the cultural limits sustainable by their environment, simply froze their society, living in exactly the same way for at least 2,000 years without innovation, acted upon by the land rather than acting on it. Any attempt to evolve past the land’s natural limits failed, drawing the people back to the status quo. This environmental determinism, Mann writes, suggests a history of “all fall and no rise.”
Anna C. Roosevelt, curator of archeology at the Field Museum in Chicago, challenged this view. She re-excavated the sites studied by Meggers, this time using state-of-the-art scientific techniques such as ground-penetrating radar to gather additional data and draw a more three-dimensional portrait. Her conclusions, first shared in 1991, contradict Meggers’ view of a small population without agency. Roosevelt found evidence of a large-scale but decentralized civilization involved in the active cultivation of the land, “a source of social and technological innovation of continental importance,” as Mann puts it. Since then, Roosevelt’s interpretation has been echoed by other scientists who have found proof of extensive use of ceramics to build up the soil, elaborate road systems, and artificial ponds and canals—“a highly elaborate built environment, rivaling that of many contemporary complex societies of the Americas and elsewhere.”
Scholars such as Meggers resist these discoveries for political rather than scholarly reasons. They fear a portrait of a decentralized yet thriving society based on innovative actors manipulating their environment will give a green light to outsiders—especially the much-hated private developers—to enter the Amazon and have their wicked way with its resources, hastening environmental degradation in the name of the almighty dollar.
Mann answers such concerns while avoiding Holmberg’s Mistake, pointing out that uncovering the truth is a win-win scenario: “The new picture doesn’t automatically legitimate burning down the forest. Instead it suggests that for a long time clever people who knew tricks that we have yet to learn used big chunks of Amazonia non-destructively. Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they fixed it. They were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything.” (Or, at least, the Columbian encounter disrupted and destroyed it.) Rather than hide the truth of what the native populations planned and accomplished, Mann suggests, we might just learn from it.
It is high time that someone synthesized the recent revelations in Native American studies, many of which have been achieved by bringing the latest scientific methods and models to bear on age-old questions. Mann’s fascinating distillation of more than a decade’s worth of scholarship is a remarkable achievement. He highlights the latest theories and interpretations of everything from American population prior to Columbus to early genetic engineering of maize. For example: Scholars now estimate that more people probably lived in the Americans than in Europe in 1491, and that some cities (such as the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán) were both more populated and more sophisticated in terms of construction and cleanliness than their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Perhaps even more importantly, Mann properly gives credit to the pioneers who led the brave charge away from Holmberg’s Mistake, such as the historians James Axtell of William and Mary (Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America), Alfred Crosby of the University of Texas (The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492), and Neal Salisbury of Smith College (Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England). Mann especially honors the University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, whose watershed 1982 work Changes in the Land first challenged the myth of the pristine New World wilderness. Cronon detailed how American Indians were not reaping, as the Europeans believed, “unplanted bounties of nature.” Instead, they were cultivating the landscape through deliberate means, such as burning extensive sections of forest once or twice a year in order to increase the populations of certain desired species, thus reshaping the environment into the form they preferred over hundreds, even thousands of years.
1491 also underscores how far the field of Native American studies has to go. For example, despite many clues in post-conquest sources (often written by Spanish colonial leaders or clergy), scholars only realized in the late 1990s that the bunches of intricately knotted strings produced by the Inka actually represent a writing system yielding three-dimensional written texts. The first systematic analysis of the grammar of the khipu code did not appear until 2003. As the Western Michigan University historian Catherine Julien explains, the chance now exists that we “may be able to hear the Inkas for the first time in their own voice.” Likewise, surprises found in new excavations of Maya sites—some of which have been made public in the months since the publication of 1491—illustrate how much there is to learn about the basic chronology and structure of one of America’s dominant civilizations.Each new revelation underscores Holmberg’s error. Native Americans prior to and after 1492, like other peoples across the globe, interacted in innovative, deliberate, and fascinating ways with each other and their environment. If we can transcend petty current politics long enough to investigate these discoveries with all the tools at our disposal, we may learn not only about them but also from them.