New Revelations of the
Americas Before Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
Knopf; 465pp; $30
The Good A fascinating, unconventional account of Indian life in the Americas prior to 1492.
The Bad Occasionally gets bogged down in academic debates.
The Bottom Line Makes a compelling case that Mesoamerica was a cradle of civilization.
Ah, the Amazon. The legendary rain forest spreads across much of South America and is home to about a third of the world's animal and plant species -- and very few humans. Among the latter is the much studied Yanomamo tribe of central Brazil. These indigenous people employ the age-old technique of slash-and-burn, using machetes and fire to clear jungle and expose a patch of land for farming. Then, as the fast-growing wilderness returns to claim the area, the Indians move away, following a rhythm developed over millennia. It's one of the few approaches that works, since the Amazon is so inhospitable to modern agriculture. Today, environmentalists are fighting not only to defend the rain forest against loggers, miners, and developers but also to safeguard this Indian way of life that's in harmony with nature.
We're all familiar with some version of this story. Problem is, it's almost entirely untrue, argues Charles C. Mann in his fascinating 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. As Mann tells us, some anthropologists and archaeologists are convinced that the Yanomamo are relative newcomers to the region, refugees from more sophisticated societies farther south who sought safety in the rain forest from 17th-century European invaders and their diseases. Slash-and-burn, these scholars now say, is a relatively new invention, made possible only by the importation of steel blades from Europe. Even more astonishing, says Mann, a growing body of scholarly work suggests that much of the Amazon's diverse tree population is cultivated. With the jungle impenetrable, Indians devised an ingenious farming solution -- planting trees right in the forest that would produce a cornucopia of fruits, nuts, and other edibles. Writes Mann: "They were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything."
Surprising, intriguing stories like this fill the pages of 1491. A correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly, Mann taps into recent scholarship that challenges the conventional wisdom about Indian culture, society, and politics. The revisionists argue that the America Columbus encountered did not consist of a pristine landscape, home to a relatively small number of illiterate and innumerate Indians living close to the land. Instead, vast civilizations had long flourished throughout the Americas, especially below the Rio Grande. The legendary Maya and Aztec civilizations, as well as the lesser-known Tiwanaku and Wari among others, built giant cities with magnificent public architecture and lively intellectual life.
For instance, in 1000 A.D., the city of Tiwanaku (now in Bolivia) may have had a population of 115,000, with a further 250,000 in the countryside. Paris wouldn't reach that scale for another five centuries. Trade flourished across North America. "It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshiped as people do everywhere."
Why has this history been hidden for so long? Blame diseases brought by Europeans, especially smallpox. Much of what explorers described as uninhabited had really been depopulated by disease.
Take the Inka. Francisco Pizarro and his 168 men and 62 horses came upon these people in the early 16th century. The Inka had constructed the largest empire in the world, bigger even than that of the Ming dynasty or the Ottomans. Yet as every school child knows, Pizarro's small force defeated them. He did this partly by exploiting factional rivalries among the Inka elite. Moreover, far less appreciated until recently, in five waves between 1524 and 1565, smallpox epidemics wiped out millions of Inka. Disease and subjugation masked these vibrant Indian civilizations from future generations. That is, until now.
Many of these ideas are controversial. The scholars delving into Indian history are portrayed by Mann as a contentious, jealous bunch. And the author is hardly neutral: In each controversy he describes, Mann leans toward the side that makes Indian culture seem the most advanced. Moreover, parts of 1491 get bogged down in scientific descriptions and academic debates, and at times the story gets so dense it's hard to follow. But those are minor irritants. The real triumph of 1491 is to make a compelling case that Mesoamerica, much like the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, was a cradle of civilization. Would-be textbook writers, take note.
By Christopher Farrell