book review: 1491

December 14, 2005

in Books


I don’t know a hell of a lot about anthropology or pre-Columbian Latin American history.  And like most everybody else, my knowledge of what North America was like prior to European contact consisted of the usual glowing descriptions of pristine habitats and wide expanses of wilderness where a squirrel could scamper from Illinois to Virginia without touching the ground.

1491 sure blew that notion out of the water, and opened my eyes to new ideas about how the Americas looked before the year 1492.

Very well-written, thorough, and thought-provoking, 1491 discusses how  humans came to and lived upon this continent — and the evidence presented indicates it was much earlier, from different directions, and with far greater impact than traditionally believed.

Author Charles Mann covers migration routes to North America, the origins of other New World people  (especially interesting in light of recent news that ancient skulls unearthed in Brazil resemble aboriginal Australians), and recent, much-elevated estimates of native populations before 1492. But it was the accounts of indigenous technology and profound environmental transformation that I found most provocative.

Although sometimes lengthy and detailed, treatments of many ancient societies, such as the Maya and Inca/Inka, are fascinating and easy to absorb even for the uninitiated reader.  I had no idea of the level of sophistication that characterizes some of these societies.  I was intrigued to learn what a complicated and significant accomplishment it was for pre-Columbian people to develop maize, considered one of the greatest feats of genetic engineering humans have yet achieved.

Compelling for me were the discussions on how pre-contact people altered and shaped the environment.  Far, FAR from living lightly on the land, they made sweeping alterations that left little untouched. Native Americans (north of the Rio Grande) made constant use of fire, providing forage for herbivorous animals which they hunted.  Through their use of fire, they were responsible for bison occupying eastern forests (if you consider woodland bison distinct from plains bison, they even shaped a species).  When disease and conflict reduced the fire-utilizing human native populations, areas quickly reverted to the dense, rather than open, forests which most early historical accounts describe.

The sections on how Amazonian Indians managed the rainforest by planting “orchards” of various palms and fruiting trees, and nurturing long-term crops from notoriously poor, lean tropical soils by tending constantly-smouldering fires in a form of slash-and-char agriculture was nothing short of a revelation to me.  A minimum of an eighth of non-flooded Amazonian forest is anthropogenic — shaped by humans.  This is an astounding figure.

These were just a few of the things I learned in 1491. Mann turns to (and often ends up in the field with) many experts — anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, botanists, political scientists, mathematicians, geneticists, medical researchers, geographers, ethnographers, chemists, and agriculture, ceramic, and textile specialists.  Yet he is able to orchestrate this vast collection of knowledge and pull it together in a coherent, scholarly yet informal, and engrossing fashion.

I love books that torpedo sacred cows, tear down long-held assumptions, and make me look at things in a different way.  1491 did all this.  What a wonderful surprise to pick up a book outside my field, expecting only a change of pace, to discover plenty of material that gave me new perspectives and added richness and depth to my area of study, ecology. Understanding today’s ecological issues requires just this type of cross-disciplinary vision.

Some will call this book revisionist or even speculative, but 1491 is carefully researched and documented, balanced, and persuasive.  New, challenging ideas deserve wide exposure and debate.  If you or someone you know likes a little intellectual provocation, by all means get a copy of 1491.


John December 14, 2005 at 10:44 pm

I had heard about this book a while back, and it is on the list of things I would like to read when I get around to it. I have read some criticism about it being overly speculative. But I want to look at it for myself to judge.

Some of the native peoples in Central and South America were in fact highly sophisticated and highly urbanized. The large cities of the Mayan heartland would have had as much impact on the surrounding environment as anything similar in contemporary Europe.

afarensis December 14, 2005 at 10:50 pm

That sounds really interesting and based on your review it doesn't sound that speculative. I'll have to read it…

Nuthatch December 15, 2005 at 11:11 am

Mann openly discusses the controversies on several topics, which is why I say the book is pretty balanced. A few subjects are: the numbers of native people in the New World prior to European contact, the increasingly earlier dates of New World societies, and the ideas that the Amazonian forests were highly modified by humans, and that they were able to carry out long-term agriculture there. Interesting stuff!

Mark O'Brien December 15, 2005 at 11:16 am

I think if one thing can be said of western civilization in the "New World", is that it has always arrogantly assumed that the indigenous peoples living here were either "primitive", or some other term to demean their impacts upon the western hemisphere. A recent issue of Smithsonian had a quite different view of the first Thanksgiving, revealing the whole story that is often untold. Although Europeans and subsequent settlers and US Policies did their part to remove Indians from their lands, the first arrivals of diseases such as hepatitus, and smallpox, erased 90 percent of the tribes that lived along the northeastern coast, before the colonies even got started.
I will definitely read 1491!

Sandy December 15, 2005 at 9:27 pm

I'm glad to hear you liked it so much. Prehistoric Native American ecology was my field of study for about fifteen years (five in grad school at Univ. of Michigan in the Museum of Anthropology's Ethnobotanical Lab.), so I read 1491 with a somewhat critical eye. I was surprised (and happy) to find that Mann did a really good job of covering many of the debates and much of the relevant archaeological work done in the last thirty years. Although I have to say that I'm somewhat disconcerted to hear how eye-opening many reviewers are finding this book, since the topics covered are really fundamental in modern archaeology in the US today. Obviously the field hasn't done a very good job of explaining and popularizing its findings to the general public.

Sandy December 15, 2005 at 9:34 pm

Also – most of what Mann presents, especially on Native manipulation of the environment, is not considered very speculative at all by most archaeologists. When the archaeological evidence is controversial (as with the dates for settling the New World, megafauna extinction, population levels, etc.) Mann is pretty clear about this.

larry December 16, 2005 at 12:46 am

On a somewhat similar theme, William Cronon's book 'Changes in the Land' published about 20 years ago looked at the effects of indigenous human populations on the ecology of the northeastern US (as it is now anyway) prior to and during the colonization of the region by Europeans. It was a wonderful book–at least when I read it 20 years ago.

Nuthatch December 16, 2005 at 6:52 pm

Sandy — Glad to hear comments from someone in the know. I was going to add in my review exactly what you mention: the many of these ideas have not been adequately presented to the public, particularly all in one place, in an approachable and understandable style. Thanks for stopping by!

biosparite December 17, 2005 at 3:46 pm

SCIENCE ran a cover several years ago of Native Americans fishing, drawn by an early Jamestown colonist. The story pointed out that even the fishing activities of nontechnological societies changes the structure of the fishery. Assumptions about the prehistoric idyll of environment-protecting noble savages are ringing hollow.

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