The Beni, as Mann describes it, is “a Bolivian province about the size of Illinois and Indiana put together, and nearly as flat.” In the first chapter of 1491, “A View from Above,” Mann describes his visit with U.S. archaeologists Clark Erickson and William Balée, and their interactions with numerous inhabitants of the region. He refers to the view from above to emphasize how different the landscape looks from the air.
Among the contemporary peoples living in the Beni, the Sirionó are the most well-known, in part because of Alan Holmberg’s study, Nomads of the Long Bow, which provided negative views of their culture that promoted mistaken impressions for decades.
Although it was long known that numerous indigenous groups inhabited the area, it was thought that they lived in the savannah and that the nearby forests had seen no human habitation. The works of William Denevan in the 1950s, and Erickson, Balee, and others since about 1900, have greatly expanded knowledge of the early habitation of the area, and in many ways completely contradicted previous ideas. From the air, remnants of old raised fields that ancient people used for agriculture are clearly visible. Archaeologists have done considerable excavation in this area.