Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849
Journalist Charles C. Mann’s interest in the pre-Columbian people of the Americas began in 1983 while he was on an assignment in Mexico covering a National Aeronautics and Space Administration program to monitor atmospheric ozone. On the scientists’ day off, Mann tagged along with them to the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. His interest developed over the subsequent decades, as he visited various other Mesoamerican ruins, both on vacation and on assignment. This curiosity and examination of facts and theories, past and present, has led to a remarkable book about what might have been going on in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.
In the introduction in 1491, titled “Holmberg’s Mistake,” Mann describes a visit to the Beni, a Bolivian province “about the size of Illinois and Indiana put together.” During the early 1940’s, Allan R. Holmberg, a doctoral student, lived among the Sirionó tribe in the Beni. Holmberg reported them to be “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world.” The mistake Holmberg made was to assume that these people had always lived this way, that their way of life had remained unchanged from primitive times, and that they were essentially a people who had “no real history.”
In reality, the Sirionó of the Beni were the remnants of a tribe that had flourished in this region before smallpox and influenza arrived in their villages in the 1920’s. More interesting, their ancestors were not only much more numerous but had left evidence of a highly developed culture that built cities and developed the lands of the Beni for agriculture. Mann was shown the traces of massive earthworks in a flyover of the region and then examined them on the ground. The seasonal flooding of the Beni was managed by these structures, allowing the Indians to trap fish during the wet seasons.
Unfortunately, this view of primitive Indians was already widespread. When people think of the Indians of Amazonia, they are likely to picture small bands of highly mobile hunters and gatherers, often extremely violent and warlike, living in a natural harmony in the jungle depths. The idea of the noble savage still colors many people’s view of Indians as innocent, childlike, and totally natural beings.
Holmberg’s mistake also includes the belief that the native peoples of the Americas had little impact on the land, that they did not change it in any lasting, purposeful way. Choosing three areas of the Americas and the cultures that occupied them, Mann examines what is known about these peoples, including some of the most recent discoveries. The Mayans in Mesoamerica, the eastern tribes of North America, and the Inca of Peru, have left physical traces of their cultures. In many cases, close examination of written accounts from the time of contact with Europeans reveals truths about the cultures that have been missed by those operating under the same assumptions as Holmberg did.
Mann also mentions the neolithic revolution, which is the invention of farming. Considering that the Middle East, where farming began, is known as the cradle of civilization, the neolithic revolution was a defining event in human history. What is not widely known is that another, completely independent neolithic revolution also took place, in Mesoamerica. Archaeologists currently estimate that it occurred about ten thousand years ago, which puts it slightly later than the Middle Eastern version. However, as recently as 2003, the seeds of cultivated squashes were found in coastal Ecuador that predate the ancient Sumerian accomplishment.
Mann alternates between intense, in-depth examination of what is known or believed about a particular culture and his general theory of misapprehension about what was occurring in the Americas when the first Europeans arrived. Sometimes this is annoying, especially when he jumps abruptly from Andean culture to eastern North American cultures. However, he weaves the common threads together skillfully, and the evidence mounts until it seems that not only did the arrival of the Europeans ruin everything but that the conquests and assumptions of inferiority also robbed the world of the Americas’ cultural richness.
The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 discusses the belief that the Americas were empty country, waiting to be populated by those who could put it to better use. Mann shows how estimates of the number of people living in the Americas are faulty, colored by preexisting beliefs. Taking into account the vast numbers of fatalities caused by European diseases against which Indians had no immunities, he revises the numbers upward until he posits a land fairly teeming with people engaged in all sorts of enterprises. Not all scholars and scientists of this period agree with the revised estimates, and Mann explains why this is so. He again examines the reports of famous explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Francisco Pizarro, and Hernán Cortés, gleaning from their records population sizes and numbers of villages that do not support the idea of an empty America. Yet, a century after de Soto traveled through the southeastern part of North America, Europeans indeed found a land emptied of its former inhabitants.
Mann looks to genetics to explain why the diseases of the Europeans had such a terrible impact on the Indians. He points out that the peoples of the American continents seem to have an unusually homogeneous biochemistry. Although the “timing and manner of Indians’ arrival in the Americas,” is in dispute, “almost all researchers believe that the initial number of newcomers must have been small.” The differences in the human leukocyte antigens (HLAs) present in this population from the HLAs of the arriving Europeans made them unusually vulnerable to diseases that had adapted to human hosts long before but to which the Indians had no immunity. Mann hesitates to assign blame for the calamity of extermination, however, pointing out that neither the Indians nor the Europeans of first contact times understood the mechanisms of infection and disease. The first Europeans unwittingly unleashed epidemics, although centuries later disease was sometimes knowingly spread.
Part 2 looks at cultural achievements in the Americas. Mann solves the puzzle of why the wheel was not employed in Andean cultures beyond use in children’s toys. The Andeans had no large beasts of burden such as were available in other parts of the world, and the steep mountain paths were unsuited to such vehicles. The sure feet of the relatively small llamas were perfectly adapted to travel in the mountain reaches. Until the coming of Europeans, nowhere throughout the Americas were animals large enough or suitable for riding, but it did not take long for Indians to become mounted once horses were available.
Mann looks at such cultural developments as the growth and use of cotton and the development of maize. The latter was a particularly amazing feat. Grain-bearing grasses of the New World needed only some adaptation to agriculture to produce bountiful harvests. Wild forms of these plants can still be found. However, no clear ancestor of maize has been identified. The closest similar plant is so much smaller and bears so many fewer edible seeds that if it was an ancestor of modern maize, there must have been some genius in breeding it and incredible foresight for what it could become. Maize is one of the most prolific food sources available in the world, producing more edible food per acre than any other grain. Combined with the beans and squash also available in the New World, it provides a complete, nutritious diet for human beings.
Some of Mann’s most fascinating material, found in chapter 5, “Pleistocene Wars” (part 2), concerns the stubbornness of scientists who refuse to acknowledge new evidence that upsets the currently held theories. This is an ongoing occurrence, and for every new theory Mann describes, he cites the opinions of its detractors. Scientists are accused of everything from wishful thinking to political correctness to dismiss their ideas.
In part 3, Mann examines the ways in which Indians formed the land into usable acreage, despite often daunting natural conditions. Not only did the Indians practice agriculture extensively, but they also managed the lands in ways that were vastly superior to the methods Europeans practiced at the time, and in many cases to what is known and practiced today. They apparently solved the problem of the infamous soil of Amazonia, which proves to be little suited to agriculture once the forest has been cleared. Areas of human habitation still exist that are founded on a rich, dark soil (called terra preta do Ìndiorich, fertile “Indian dark earth”) that was deliberately produced by humans. Broken ceramics are found in this earth, along with a high percentage of charcoal, nutrients, and microbial organisms necessary to break up organic matter so that it is readily available to plants. The northeastern Indians practiced land management by burning off underbrush. The amazing number of fruit trees that the European colonists found had probably been deliberately planted by a population that was now much diminished and driven from their lands.
The book also contains a coda and several appendixes. In the coda, Mann makes the startling but convincing case that the ideas of personal liberty that Americans hold so dear can be traced directly to the Indian societies encountered by the English colonists. He compares the proscribed lives of Europeans of that time with the freedom of the Indians, which were often annoying to the former. The colonists found that even an Indian child reared among them would, upon but one visit with his relations, never be persuaded to return. When one looks at the difference between the societies, it is not hard to imagine why.
Mann relates the story of Deganawidah and the Great Law of Peace that became the Haudenosaunee constitution and established a league of tribes and great council to settle disputes. This council of Northeastern seaboard tribes was limited strictly to relations between member nations and outside groups; “internal affairs were the province of the individual nations.” Mann points out that although Indian leaders of the eastern seaboards were absolute rulers theoretically, in actuality they required the consent of the governed in all matters.
In appendix A, “Loaded Words,” Mann explains his reasons for using the word “Indian” rather than “Native American.” Appendix B, “Talking Knots,” describes an Inca form of writing in which knotted strings are read by the khipukamayuq“knot keepers.” This is a unique system that was mostly lost when the Spanish sought to repress alternate versions of events. Appendix C, “the Syphilis Exception,” considers whether there was at least one infectious disease that traveled from the Americas back to Europe. Appendix D, “Calendar Math,” describes the calendar systems of the Maya, which consisted of a sacred calendar, a secular calendar, and “the Long Count,” a system for tracking the days “that . . . linked the other two.” The book also contains an extensive notes section, bibliography, and index.
Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1986.
Business Week, September 5, 2005, pp. 108-109.
Esquire 144, no. 2 (August, 2005): 46.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 11 (June 1, 2005): 625-626.
Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 15, 2005): 96.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 9, 2005): 21.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 25 (June 20, 2005): 69.
Science News 168, no. 8 (August 20, 2005): 127.
The Washington Post Book World 35, no. 31 (August 7, 2005): 5.