Charles C. Mann's 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
is one of the most fascinating and surprising books I've read in a long time. It's purpose is to update our knowledge of what Indian societies were like and how they affected the environment from what most of us learned in school. There's a massive difference, and it's extremely important, especially for South and Middle American societies.
I've gone from believing the Silent Spring crowd to skeptic to downright distrust in environmentalists over the years, mostly because they seem to be more interested in fundraising and opposing progress than really solving anything. Their reliance on religious rhetoric also made me suspicious as to whether this movement was based on reality or was just a pseudo-religion for those with no faith in more demanding ones. The whole thing has always smacked of elitism and exclusion of us common people. The wealthy can afford to build homes run by solar power and wind energy, but most of us have to work two or three jobs per couple just to buy any home at all. People like Robert Redford buy ski resorts and then lecture the rest of us about preserving nature. Their views on preserving wilderness in many cases seem calculated to allow them access through professional guides, while keeping out the hoi polloi who only have trucks or cars.
Over time, I've picked up morsels of information about the Indians (no more Native American than I am) and how they lived. One factoid I read somewhere was that the Precolumbian population of the Americas has been estimated to be about 90,000,000 and that it plummeted to less than 9,000,000 in the centuries following contact with Europeans, mostly due to diseases. I watched programs about the ingenuity of the Indians in growing crops in the Andes, using raised beds for crops ringed by canals filled with water which captured the warmth of the sun and protected the plants from freezing and extended the growing season. They nearly all knew about irrigation. The Mormons who settled Utah learned irrigation techniques from the Indians.
Some time ago, I read an article in Discover
magazine making the stunning claim that America was not
pristine when the white men first came here. The Indians in California, for example, lived on acorns which they ground up and soaked to remove the bitter tannin, making them edible. They regularly burned the lands they occupied to help the oaks thrive and keep out other less desirable species. Those Indians weren't the ignorant savages we were told about, and they didn't just sit around and wait for Nature to deliver its bounty.
Then I saw Charles C. Mann talking about his book on Book TV
and I was hooked. The Indians, archeologists are discovering were far more numerous than we were told, having been devastated by European diseases which spread faster than the the Europeans could settle, and leaving the impression for those who came a century or two later that the land had always been empty and filled with game. They settled a land which had been terraformed by the previous inhabitants, and thought it just came that way straight from nature. The Indians burned their grasslands, cultivated fields, planted orchards and groves of nut trees, hunted various animals that were a threat to their own food supply. Most of both continents was occupied by stable farming tribes, who became nomads after their cities and villages were wiped out by disease in the 15th century.
Mann is no polemicist. He is merely reporting the research of many scholars who are investigating the evidence in historical records as well as uncovered by archeological digs. The book is astonishing, yet delightful. Everybody who cares about the history of the Western Hemisphere should read it.