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Aug 01 2020

Book review: 1491 by Charles C. Mann

1491I read 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann as a follow up to How the States got their Shapes by Mark Stein. I had been frustrated at how this latter book had focussed on the colonial period, with native Americans almost completely elided.

The book tracks through three broad themes looking at those themes as they relate to Amazonia in the South, through Peru into central America and then into North America. The emphasis is around central America and the more northern parts of South America. I think this is a result of where the archaeology are found. 

The first theme is the numbers of native Americans in the time before colonisation, the broad picture here is that the population was large prior to colonisation, and in places still high as colonisation started but it was reduced dramatically by disease brought by the colonists – figures as high as a 90% reduction are discussed. The native Americans were highly vulnerable to the diseases the Europeans brought, both because they were genetically less diverse than the Europeans, and they had never experienced anything like the diseases brought. Initial contact between Europeans and Americans took place in the 16th century, with more serious attempts at colonisation not getting under way for a century, by which point disease had taken its toll. In an appendix Mann discusses whether syphilis travelled to Europe from the Americas, the evidence here is not clear.

The European view of the pre-colonial population of the Americas has varied, with the initial explorers recognising the sizeable populations of in the lands they found but as colonisation continued those memories were lost as the native population plummeted. Furthermore it was in the interests of the colonists to see the Americas as empty land, rather than land they took from others. During the 20th century these views have slowly been revised although there is considerable debate over exactly the scale of death through disease.

The second theme is origins: when were humans first found in the Americas? During the early part of the 20th century the view developed that the first human settlers in the Americas arrived over a land bridge from Asia around 15,000 years ago – the so called Clovis people. Towards the end of the 20th century this view has been revised with earliest origins going back to 30,000 or so years ago. In any case there were significant civilisations leaving behind ruins and burials dating back to 7,000 years ago. 

The final theme is landscape, to what degree is the landscape we see in the Americas human-made? Here it seems that Europeans have one view of a human-made landscape which does not match what is found in the Americas. The Americas are the origin to a huge variety of important agricultural crops (potatoes, maize, peppers, cassava/manioc and squashes) but they are not found in the fields associated with European agriculture but more in cultivated woodland. This dichotomy is perhaps starkest in Amazonia where there is still considerable dispute as to what civilisations once lived there, if any, and to what degree the Amazonian rainforest is human-made. Again this is tinged with modern European and colonial sentiments, in particular from a conservationist point of view it is preferable to see the Amazon as an untouched wilderness rather than a landscape shaped by humans since this provides a strong argument against allowing (renewed) development.

American cities both North and South were often different from European cities, commerce has always been important in European cities but in the Americans cities were often great ritual centres with living accommodation for farmers and other workers but little sign of trade.

In a coda Mann discusses the potential impact that the egalitarian Haudenosaunee alliance had on the founding fathers of the United States. Mann is clear that his view on this is not yet mainstream but highlights that principles of the founding fathers were closer to those of the Haundenosaunee than those of the class-based hierarchy of European countries. Early colonists had extensive interactions with the native Americans, and it wasn’t unknown for them to join their communities seeing them as more congenial than their own.

The book finishes with appendices on names, the khipu system of writing with knots, syphilis and the Mesoamerican calendars. I must admit I bristled early on at the use of the term “Indian”, rather than “native American” but as Mann highlights “Indians” usually use the term “Indian” themselves without objection in the relevant context and he uses “Indian” and “native American” interchangeable simply to introduce a degree of variety. More generally he attempts to use the name that a member of a group would prefer to use for that group. It parallels my preference to be called European, British, English, from Dorset or from Cheshire depending on context. 

I must admit I was aiming for a book that covered North American pre-colonial history in more detail. That said 1491 is readable, covering a great deal of ground. My next step is probably to look for a history of the Haudenosaunee.

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