Subtitled “New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus”, Charles C. Mann’s 1491 is a delightful survey of native civilizations and cultures in North and South America prior to the coming of the Europeans. Much has been discovered in the last twenty years, and it turns out that a lot of what I thought I knew about pre-Columbian times is wrong—or, at least, incomplete.
I knew, for example, that smallpox brought by the Spaniards (and later colonists) had decimated the Indian* population across the Americas, and that New England had room for the Pilgrims only because the previous tenants were dead. But I didn’t know that the Indians of Pawtuxet (now Plymouth) were alive only a few years prior to 1620, or that the Squanto of Thanksgiving legend was perhaps the only survivor of Pawtuxet. Once a principle advisors to the village sachem (chief), Squanto was abducted and taken to Spain. He escaped to England, and then returned to North America; but it took him years to find his home, and when he did his people were gone and the Pilgrims had taken their place.
I knew that scholars had deciphered Maya writing; but I hadn’t heard all of the interesting bits of history they’ve learned since—or that the most recent glyphs, carved during the waning years of high Maya culture, are essentially gibberish, copies of previous carvings but making no sense.
I didn’t know that many of the Mesoamerican cultures not only had forms of writing but also produced books of various sorts…most of which were, tragically, burned by the Spanish.
I’d been taught that humans first came to the Americans over a land-bridge from Siberia during an ice age, about 15,000 years ago, and had slowly spread south from what is now Alaska. It now appears that there have been humans in the Americas for up to 30,000 years, and that likely they came in multiple waves.
I was most fascinated by the ecological parts of the story. We’re told that the Indians “lived in harmony with nature”; and so, in turns out, they did: they were land managers par excellence, managing the land to support the game and produce the nuts and fruits that they wanted.
It was once thought that the Amazon rain forest, for example, was completely unsuited to agriculture: if you cut down the trees to make fields, the hard rain pounds the top-soil and destroys it, leaving you with nothing. But that’s not the only kind of agriculture; and it is now thought that the Indians along the Amazon managed the rain forest as a kind of giant orchard, purposely growing all kinds of useful trees.
I could go on and on; it’s the sort of book that will be furnishing me with conversation fodder for years.
It’s too much to hope for, of course, that the subject of pre-Columbian times would be without its controversies. There have been many, and many remain; and Mann is remarkably even-handed, explaining both sides and then giving his view without becoming polemical.
In short, if this description has interested you at all you should get a copy of the book; because I certainly haven’t done it justice.
* Mann spends an appendix on the vexed question of how to refer to the peoples who lived here before Columbus came. He concludes that “Indian” is the best of a bad lot; the term “native American”, logically speaking, applies to everyone born in this hemisphere, and in any event is only used by English speakers; and many Indians don’t claim it, especially in South America.