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...
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