1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. New York: Vintage, 2006. 560 pp., $35.00.
Speaking of ambitious goals (see the previous book review), how about an attempt to rewrite our understanding of all pre-Columbian civilization in the Western hemisphere in less than 600 pages?
I turned my attention to this book after stalling out on my intense Kierkegaard tome. The book previously belonged to a colleague of mine who was moving on to his next post and was getting rid of odds and ends. The simple title caught my attention and the clean layout (as opposed to Kierkegaard's tiny and endless font) was also quite appealing. Mann writes well and the subject matter is compelling and extremely interesting. But despite the author's journalistic background, I can't help but feel as though he buried his lead. Reorganization, a stronger examination of biological evidence, and a more consistent thesis would have quickly vaulted this book to the top of my recommend pile. As it is, I still consider this one of most interesting books of the year for me.
Because Mann fails to really lay out the thesis of this book, let me pull instead from the back cover:
Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them.The idea is compelling and certainly controversial. The foundation of Mann's argument is that early missionaries and explorers who chronicled much of the first interactions with the original Americans were witnessing only the vestiges of societies decimated by disease from the very same explorers. What we often stereotypically view concerning Indians (Mann insists on the term Indian for the logical reason that "Native Americans" encounters many of the similar homogenizing hurdles and is really no better) is small bands in perfect harmony with nature--by which we mean, they utilized natural resources without manipulating the earth to their advantage. But Mann, and the researchers he uses to justify the argument, argue instead that Indians in 1491 were massive and ancient civilizations with unique technology designed to maximize the return on Mother Nature.
Mann's major fault is he saves the best for last. The first section chronicles how devastating and fast spreading European diseases were to American cultures; while moderately interesting, I feel this is ground Jared Diamond has already addressed adequately. The second section regarding the length of time American civilizations have been around is also relatively non-controversial and better covered by other works, some of them extensively cited by Mann. The third section--regarding biological evidence suggesting terraforming and intensive human manipulation of the natural environment--was the most insightful, novel, and intuitive for me.
There is of course a danger in falling in love with an idea that lacks the necessary evidence. But I think Mann is really on to something. Why were there millions upon millions of passenger pigeons and buffalos roaming the land when Europeans arrive? Surely such a glut of life would be checked by the inexorable demands of evolutionary biology. According to Mann's thesis, the terrible demise of Indians who succumbed to disease removed the keystone species of stable ecosystems throughout the Americas. The author (finally) emphasizes this important point on page 353:
American landscapes after 1492 were emptied--"widowed," in the historian Francis Jenning's term. Suddenly deregulated, ecosystems shook and sloshed like a cup of tea in an earthquake. Not only did invading endive and rats beset them, but native species, too, burst and blasted, freed from constraints by the disappearance of Native Americans. The forest that the first New England colonists thought was primeval and enduring was actually in the midst of violent change and demographic collapse. So catastrophic and irrevocable were the changes that it is tempting to think that almost nothing survived from the past. This is wrong: landscape and people remain, though greatly altered.The unique perspective of Mann's book is his ability to link the Native Americans to their ecosystem better than any environmentalist or Thoreau. The jury is still out on his thesis--indeed, a major component of his argument is that much of the evidence was wiped out before any evidence could be collected--but I find his argument compelling on this point. It provides a valuable dose of humility for the anthropological and archaeological communities and reminds us how little we know about our own history.
I'm still frustrated by the organization of the book. The introduction does not map the book out adequately, the first section is repetitive, and the second section gets mired in academic squabbles. Unlike most books, the final section is the strongest. The codas and appendices at the end are fundamentally unnecessary and read like sections of the book the editor insisted be removed but Mann couldn't bear to part with. Thankfully, these are errors that are ultimately overcome by good writing, an interesting subject, and an ending that leaves a good taste in the reader's mouth.