This book is full of interesting anecdotes and observations that would be separately bloggable, but I want to concentrate on the work as a whole, and why I've added it to my list of recommended books
Despite the title, the book is not about a single year. 1491 is used as a cutting point for defining the "precontact" Americas (pre-Columbian/European contact). Charles C. Mann is not an archaeologist; he is a science journalist who has previously written about medical science and physics. Here he synthesizes known information about the prehistory of North and South America and the changes that ensued after Europeans arrived.
For a reasonable summary of the book, you can browse the article he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly
on the same subject back in 2002. I'm going to focus on Chapter 10, which effectively debunks the popular myth that North American in particular was a "pristine wilderness" when the Europeans arrived.
Two months ago I reviewed and excerpted Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
(University of Chicago Press, 2009), which detailed what Europeans found in North America:
"The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs and with venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers, good tillage land; here is, especially, free coming and going, without fear of the naked natives of the country..." Magnificent chestnut oaks, which these turkeys had wisely chosen as a roost, often rose sixty feet before there were any branches. So, while it’s easy to be impressed by the great tracts of forest carpeting the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians today, we should remember that these forests are nothing like the precolonial forests. Those first explorers found themselves walking through a natural cathedral whose green roof arched fifty or more feet above their heads…”
Mann's point in 1491
is that this was not even remotely a "pristine" environment unmodified by humans. Instead, what the awe-struck Europeans found was a world that had been managed for millennia by Native Americas:
A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms...
The role of Native Americans was unappreciated because their numbers had been decimated (literally) by epidemic diseases such as smallpox and typhus.
The tricky part of this explanation is not the facts per se, but the implications - especially re tropical rain forests. Amazonia was similarly "managed" by natives to such an extent that at one time it was capable of supporting huge populations, farming manufactured soil. If that argument is loosely applied, it can be used to support the claim that modern man can "improve" the jungles of the Amazonian region through the use of technology to make them more useful and productive.
I'll stop here. Those who have read this book are encouraged to offer comments on this post.
Reposted from 2012 to add some more excerpts from the book. I've just read the book for the third and final time, and before I give it to a friend I want to jot down some interesting notes:
"... fish fertilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention - if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers... In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.
"British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after. In 1501, just nine years after Columbus's first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings... [he] probably was able to kidnap such a large number of people only because the Indians were already so comfortable dealing with Europeans that big groups willingly came aboard his ship."
“In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo. The empire encompassed every imaginable type of terrain, from the rainforest of upper Amazonia to the deserts of the Peruvian coast and the twenty thousand foot peaks of the Andes between. ‘If imperial potential is judged in terms of environmental adaptability,’ wrote the Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, ‘the Inca were the most impressive empire builders of their day.’”
"Ecologists postulate that the first large-scale human societies tended to arise where, as Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles put it, geography provided “a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short distance.” One such place is the Fertile Crescent, where the mountains of western Iran and the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, bracket the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. Another is Peru. In the short traverse from mountain to ocean, travelers pass through twenty of the world’s thirty-four principal types of environment... Combining the fruits of many ecosystems, Andean cultures both enjoyed a better life than they could have wrested from any single place and spread out the risk from the area’s frequent natural catastrophes. Murra invented a name for this mode of existence: “vertical archipelagoes.”
"The ground was too dirty to receive the Inka’s [ruler's] saliva so he always spat into the hand of a courtier. The courtier wiped the spittle with a special cloth and stored it for safekeeping. Once a year everything touched by the Inka—clothing, garbage, bedding, saliva—was ceremonially burned.... Wearing soft, loose clothing of vampire-bat wool, he swanned around his palaces with a bowl of palm wine..." [I read elsewhere that "hummingbird down" was also used for fine clothing]
I would never have guessed that the Inca had sea-going ships:
"Europeans first encountered Tawantinsuyu in the form of an Inka ship sailing near the equator, three hundred miles from its home port, under a load of fine cotton sails. It had a crew of twenty and was easily the size of a Spanish caravelle."
One postulated reason for native susceptibility to new diseases was their relatively uniform genetics because of the small numbers of initial arrivals from Asia:
"Their gene pool was correspondingly restricted, which meant that Indian biochemistry was an is unusually homogeneous. More than nine out of ten Native Americans - and almost all South American Indians - have type O blood, for example, whereas Europeans are more evenly split between types O and A... About one third of South American Indians... have identical or near-identical HLA profiles; for Africans the figure is one in two hundred."
A rebuttal re brutality marking Native Americans as "primitive":
"The second myth is that in its penchant for public slaughter the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe. Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris—Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park. (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, was a crowd of “at least 12 or 14,000 people.”) In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings. “The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes stand out against the sky, in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail,” Braudel observed. “They were part of the landscape.” Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel... In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped."
Other miscellaneous observations:
“In what may have been the first large-scale compulsory education program in history, every male citizen of the Triple Alliance, no matter what his social class, had to attend one sort of school or another until the age of sixteen.”
"Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens—none existed in Europe."
The poet-physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. regarded the Indian as but “a sketch in red crayon of a rudimental manhood.” To the “problem of his relation to the white race,” Holmes said, there was one solution: “extermination.”
"If time travelers from today were to visit North America in the late Pleistocene, they would see in the forests and plains an impossible bestiary of lumbering mastodon, armored rhinos, great dire wolves, sabertooth cats, and ten-foot-long glyptodonts like enormous armadillos. Beavers the size of armchairs; turtles that weighed almost as much as cars; sloths able to reach tree branches twenty feet high; huge, flightless, predatory birds like rapacious ostriches—the tally of Pleistocene monsters is long and alluring.
At about the time of Clovis almost every one of these species vanished. So complete was the disaster that most of today’s big American mammals, such as caribou, moose, and brown bear, are immigrants from Asia. The die-off happened amazingly fast, much of it in the few centuries between 11,500 and 10,900 B.C. And when it was complete, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote, the Americas had become “a zoologically impoverished world, from which all of the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms [had] recently disappeared.”
The extinctions permanently changed American landscapes and American history. Before the Pleistocene, the Americas had three species of horse and at least two camels that might have been ridden; other mammals could have been domesticated for meat and milk. Had they survived, the consequences would have been huge. Not only would domesticated animals have changed Indian societies, they might have created new zoonotic diseases. Absent the extinctions, the encounter between Europe and the Americas might have been equally deadly for both sides—a world in which both hemispheres experienced catastrophic depopulation."
“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed 3/5 of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica."
As a native Minnesotan, I particularly appreciated this quotation re the ticks of Veracruz on the gulf side of Mexico:
Learning from local people that Tres Zapotes was only one of many mound sites in Veracruz, Stirling decided to return in 1940 to survey them all. The task was daunting even for a cigar-chomping, whisky-drinking, adventure addict like Stirling. Most of the mound centers were in the middle of trackless mangrove swamps or up narrow, unmapped rivers choked with water hyacinth. Ticks and mosquitoes were indefatigable and present in huge numbers; the ticks were worse than the mosquitoes, Stirling remarked, because they had to be dug out of the flesh with a knife. At one point Stirling and a colleague hitched a ride in a pepper truck to one of the smaller sites. After jolting down a road with deep ruts "designed to test the very souls of motorcars," the two men were let off in a nondescript meadow. Stirling went to talk with the driver.
"The ticks are not bad, are they?" I asked him hopefully, viewing the tall grass and underbrush between the road and the mounds. "No," said the driver, beaming. "When full, like grapes they fall off and no harm is done. There are millions of them here, however."
Fire as a landscaping tool:
Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to “the woods, plains, and meadows,” to “thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.” At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. “Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,” he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists’ boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. “Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides…a delightful scene to look on from afar.”
Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it—at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used “to set fire of the country in all places where they come.” The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.” Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles.
Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first white settlers in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks—they could drive carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode Island, Giovanni da Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.