1491 by Charles C. Mann

We picked up a used copy of Charles Mann's pop-archeology book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus a while back. I didn't read it at the time, because I was a little afraid that it would be rather polemical in what I think of as the Neil Young mode-- wildly overstating the awesomeness of pre-Columbian cultures, and exaggerating the evil of the European invaders (Neil's recorded some great stuff, but the lyrics to "Cortez the Killer" are pretty dopey). It came up several times recently in discussions elsewhere, though, and seemed like it would make a nice break from the disappointing run of SF novels I'd been reading, so I picked it up for bedtime reading.

Happily, it is not at all polemical, unless you're a hard-core Eurocentrist or a member of the Texas Board of Education. Mann's core message is that the pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas were more populous and more advanced than previously suspected, but for the most part he avoids politicizing this. He lays out a bunch of recent(ish) archeological evidence pointing to higher population and technology levels, and explains how previous generations of archeologists managed to fool themselves into thinking otherwise. It's only a survey of these civilizations, as he's trying to cover two whole continents and tens of thousands of years of history, but it's a fascinating and highly readable description of the recent science dealing with these people and their cultures.

Of course, I come to this very much as an outsider, so it's possible that I'm missing some critical context that would make this a plausible-sounding-but-deeply-flawed work (see: Diamond, Jared), but it's a fascinating story, well told. Two things in particular jumped out at me from reading this, one medical and the other environmental.

On the medical side, Mann cites a bunch of people arguing that epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases wiped out better than 90% of the population of the Americas in the decades after first contact with Europeans. This seems like a shockingly high number-- even the Black Death in Europe didn't come close to that level-- and he attempts to argue that there was a genetic component to this. The claim is that all of the inhabitants of the Americas were descended from a relatively small group of initial settlers, and thus had a narrower range of some key immune system responses than European or Asian populations.

If this is true (and it seems a bit thin, to be honest), that would mean that the post-contact collapse of all these civilizations was as much a matter of fantastically bad luck as anything else. Had their ancestors had a different set of immune responses, European colonization would've turned out completely differently. Which is kind of weird and shocking, really.

The other big claim of the book is that the landscape we have come to think of as "unspoiled wilderness" was, in fact, being managed on a grand scale by these civilizations, through controlled burning and other techniques. He suggests, in fact, that the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons that were wiped out in the 19th century were not the natural state of North America wildlife, but were themselves an anomalous situation caused by the collapse of the civilizations that had previously been keeping them in check.

This is a fascinating idea, largely because if it's true, it would have dramatic implications for the way we approach current environmental crises. Among other things, it would suggest that it is, in fact, possible to actively manage continent-sized environments in a fashion that is often said to be impossible. Whether the sort of management he describes would be sustainable for current populations and lifestyles is another matter, of course, but this is a good deal more hopeful than a lot of what you hear these days.

But, as I said, I could be missing the critical context that would show that this view is a complete load of crap. I am not an archeologist, and I don't play one on the Internet.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, and would welcome suggestions of other books in a similar vein, namely modern pop-archeology books-- they don't have to be solely about the Americas. I'm just looking for books providing good, readable, and reasonably solid scientifically accounts of what we've learned about ancient cultures since the early 1980's when I last read a lot of this sort of thing.


More like this

Getting more directly on-topic and as far as really ancient America is concerned, the big recent news is the fall of the "Clovis Mafia." That was the orthodox interpretation of the timeline for visitors from Siberia moving across the land bridge (one of several) around 12k BCE. Now things are getting very stirred up, in both time frames as well as ethnography. That does not necessarily validate odd theories like Hebrews, Chinese, or Africans getting here although there are things which could be construed as evidence for each of those. The visitors might well have been a mix of groups, here is an account of the controversial remains including Caucasoids, one found 1940 but presumably not well enough reconstructed then:

PS, I meant namelink below that previous comment.

Interesting little factoid (indeed, since it isn't a sure thing) about early visitors here, the Vikings. It's of interest to physics buffs: Vikings may have used polarized light to help find and navigate the Americas (ca 1000 AD.) There are stories about "sunstones" (typically thought to be cordierite, but the familiar calcite - "Iceland spar!" - may have been used too) that would allow seeing patterns in the sky due to polarization. See e.g. www.polarization.com/viking/viking.html.
Note this quote "in favor":

1. In the Hrafns Saga it says: "the weather was thick and stormy . . . The king looked about and saw no blue sky . . . then the king took the sunstone and held it up, and then he saw where [the Sun] beamed from the stone."

This would give at least a rough idea of the Sun's position below the horizon during those muddled times when it was moving just below the horizon and not quickly up or down. But I'm surprised it ostensibly worked so well with stormy/cloudy weather.

Those interested in applications of linear birefringence to quantum measurement can check the namelink above.

Here's an interesting quote on how the effect was actually used in modern times:

Interestingly, in the late 40's the US National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) developed a Sky Compass based on the same principle. It was inspired by a previous "twilight compass" developed by Dr. A. H. Pfund of Johns Hopkins University. From a NBS 1949 paper: "The principal advantage of the sky compass . . . is during twilight, and when the sun is several degrees below the horizon, as well as when the region of the sky containing the sun is overcast, so long there is a clear patch of sky overhead. The sky compass is thus of particular value when the sun compass and the sextant are not usable. Since the extent of polarization of the sky's light is greatest at right angles to the incident beam of sunlight, the compass is most accurate in the polar regions, where it is also most useful, because of the long duration of twilight . . ." The US Navy and Air Force experimented with the sky compass in the 1950's and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) used it for several years on its polar flights. Polarization.com has recently developed an inexpensive educational Skylight Compass Card.

I have an issue with the idea of actively manage continent-sized environments. This implies some form of grand plan and coordination beyond local boundaries. Whether its the extinction of the ice-age mega-fauna or control of bison populations, this was the result of local action and adjustment to resources. If you add the absence of horses in pre-Columbian times, the idea that a couple thousand natives could make a dent in the bison population seems preposterous, or, in reverse, that somehow in between the arrival of large numbers of whites on the plains in the 1830s the bison population exploded to the levels described at the time of the great bison slaughter 50 years later.

Could you please link to the Jared Diamond criticisms you alluded to? I haven't read his work but it was spoken of glowingly in the Intro to Anthro course I took in college (10 years ago).

By Andy Perrin (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

We already are "actively managing" entire continents and the world... it's just that we're not doing it in a coordinated or planned manner, but we're doing our thing and it's having an effect on the ecology of entire continents and on the world.

Also interested in links to the Jared Diamond criticisms. Not a defender, I enjoyed (but didn't entirely agree with) "Guns, Germs and Steel".

The disease issue is not necessarily so shocking. I've heard it convincingly argued that the high population density and terrible sanitation in post-Roman Europe instigated what amounted to a Red Queen's race between germs and people. When those germs hit a population that hadn't been engaged in a genetic arms race, it was pretty much game over.

Don't know if it's true, but it's an interesting idea for why native diseases didn't wipe out the settlers.

a couple thousand natives

You're off by a few orders of magnitude there. Try 70 - 90 million natives. And that's not including Mexico.

I'm also interested in some more detail on Diamond. I've only read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I take it with somewhat of a grain of salt, but I'm not aware of any solid evidence that his hypothesis is plausible but wrong.

I've read your blog faithfully for several years, Chad, but you seem lately to have developed a bit of a habit of ad hominem name-dropping, and I wish you would try to catch yourself at it, better, at least when the implied criticism isn't self-explanatory.

If this is true (and it seems a bit thin, to be honest), that would mean that the post-contact collapse of all these civilizations was as much a matter of fantastically bad luck as anything else. Had their ancestors had a different set of immune responses, European colonization would've turned out completely differently. Which is kind of weird and shocking, really.

The founding of New World populations reduced their genetic variation, but it also eliminated most Eurasian diseases. This relaxed the selection maintaining HLA diversity, while eliminating any selection in favor of specialized defenses to pathogens that weren't after all, there.

African diseases never got to NE Asia to begin with. And the last 10,000 years have seen a massive increase in the disease burden of agricultural and tropical populations of the Old World. Early New World civilizations might have gotten their own diseases, but with few domesticates and no apes, the pool of pathogens that might have affected these people was a lot lower. Chagas' disease (a trypanosomiasis) and syphilis (a treponematosis) seem to have come from New World populations, but no smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, etc.

It's not really just luck, it's biogeography.

I am not sure what criticisms of Jared Diamond Chad had in mind, but many of Guns, Germs and Steel's arguments rely on the belief that the Americas were much less densely populated than Europe (among other things, Diamond argued that Americans, living at lower population density, had lower disease prevalence and thus were not selected for disease resistance).

Mann's book contradicts this belief. It is not my field, so I don't know how much of Mann's arguments are widely accepted, but I thought it would be really interesting to read the two books together in a seminar.

By Justin Bastow (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient Americaâs Great City on the Mississippi. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2009.
Specifically the issues of managing environment and charismatic individuals driving change in pre-contact America.

On the medical side, Mann cites a bunch of people arguing that epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases wiped out better than 90% of the population of the Americas in the decades after first contact with Europeans. This seems like a shockingly high number-- even the Black Death in Europe didn't come close to that level

One of the popular history books I have read (probably either A People's History of the United States or Lies My Teacher Told Me, both of which are on my bookshelf at home) mentions contemporary accounts from 17th-century New England colonists of such death rates among native populations due to epidemics of European diseases. As others point out above, a genetic component is plausible, since there would have been no selection pressure in the Americas for resistance against diseases that had become common in the Old World due to civilization and animal domestication.

Incidentally, the disease explanation also can explain why the Viking attempt to colonize Newfoundland failed. The Vikings came from a part of Europe with a relatively low disease load, and they made efforts to minimize voluntary contact with the natives, to which they were generally hostile but lacked clear weapons superiority (i.e., gunpowder). (They also weren't preceded by a century or so of fishing boats, as the English settlers in North America were.) So the Vikings generally did not spread diseases to the natives and couldn't shoot them with cannonballs or bullets.

As for large-scale ecological management, it's plausible on the regional scale. I'm skeptical about continental scales, at least in North America, but my arguments against it are weak (there are several different language groups, but in India Dravidian groups have coexisted with Indo-European groups). The Inca and Aztec may have been extensive enough to be considered continental scale for some definitions of continental.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

Mu @2, I think the point was not that the buffalo populations changed dramatically between 1830 and 1880; but that the pre-contact civilisations and agronomic practices had kept them to much lower population levels than they could get away with on a more-or-less depopulated prairie (ie after the catastrophic population losses of the Native Americans, but before significant input from white settlers).

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

I second MMosier's recommendation @ # 11 of Pauketat's Cahokia.

Also, Gavin Menzies's 1421 is funny as hell, particularly the outrageous stretches in the later chapters. But I'm the kind of guy who gets a lot of giggles out of creationist books, too - ymmv.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

I was more fascinated by the evidence for types of 'agriculture' that differed from 'our' focus on grains. Specifically, the evidence for agriculture based on "fruit" trees in the Amazon basin and the focus on cotton (for nets to catch anchovies) in Peru. I found it an interesting counterexample to Diamond's arguments in GG&S.

"Changes in the Land", 1983, by William Cronon, goes into detail about Native land-management practices in New England, and how they differed from colonist practice.

I liked "House of Rain" by Craig Childs, a personal exploration of the "disappearance" of the Chaco culture. Part travelogue and part archeological speculation. Well written. http://www.houseofrain.com/

By Dave Gill (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

I read 1491 soon after it was published. As I recall, Mann discussed the debate between the "high-counters" and the "low-counters", emphasizing the difficulty of making accurate estimates of pre-contact population sizes. He obtained estimates ranging over several orders of magnitude from knowledgeable workers. My take was that, although it's clear that some areas (e.g. the middle Mississippi valley) had large pre-contact populations that crashed soon after contact, actual numbers are still very uncertain.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

My favourite 'pop' archaeology book (which as an Archaeologist myself, I found to be very good indeed), is 'After the Ice' by Stephen Mithen.


It is basically a look at the world immediately after the worst of the last glaciation, down to the beginings of 'complex societies' (I hate that term). The global perspective it takes is unusual and makes for an interesting overview.

I found Mann's conclusion to be something like "since other humans have fiddled with the ecosystem before, it's OK to fiddle with it now", essentially that nature is not normative. While philosophically holding truth, it points you exactly nowhere, and seemed both a license to forget learning the lessons of nature and past management failures, and to do any fool thing you wish.
I also took exception to his worship of catastrophic change (fire, human alteration) as increasing diversity or utility of the landscape, never showing he was even aware that one might want to consider the energy flux in a system, or that environments with long histories of stability (amazon) really do have greater flux as well as diversity.
I want books from people with considerably more knowledge about biology.
PS: I help in restoration projects in Michigan using fire (and other tricks) and we constantly debate the history and impact of human burns. The truth may be miles from the myths that we call our knowledge is my concern. We have so many just-so stories it's scary.

The theory about managing landscapes in ways unrecognizable to europeans isn't new or even that radical.

Rebecca Solnit's book "Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West (Sierra Club Books, 1994)" talks about a lot about silvaculture.

I would like to suggest another book. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America Meltzer, David J.
This book is still written for a general audience but is more academic and has more depth.

Once upon a time, man knew that he had to create systems that gave him a clearer view of reality (e.g., essentials are running low) which were based more on cultivation and preservation rather than on consumption and exploitation.

In the half-a-millenium since 1491, humans have changed more drastically than during any other historical period because of the creation of systems more geared to accelerating consumption and making exploitation more "efficient" which serve to obscure modern men from the reality which they happen to need to survive:

- Has the unbridled spread of commercialism and technology transformed us from small groups of active amateur participants and involved citizens to a large single mass of professional passive spectators and nonstop consumers?


I own the Kindle version and the notes in the back are not "connected " by numbers in the text. I checked the paperback version and that was also the case. Do earlier versions have notes that connect to the text with "little numbers" (annotations)---if not what good are those notes?

And if the footnotes are missing from later versions , why?