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New World Symphony

Charles C. Mann is a journalist and his new book, while not without flaws, is a journalistic masterpiece: lively, engaging, and full of the latest information about the peoples who lived in the Americas before Columbus joined the two sides of the Atlantic together. Mann draws on wide reading in recent scholarly writing, supplemented by travel to the principal archaeological sites and landscapes involved, as well as by interviews with many of the writers who have challenged older notions about the pre-Columbian past.

Recent discoveries, especially in the Amazon region, make some new ideas irresistible; in other cases Mann summarizes recent controversies without committing himself to either side. In general he argues that pre-Columbian American history was just as diverse and as complicated as anything in the Old World, and that Indian skills were not inferior to European skills. He concludes that there were two different worlds, separate but equal.

Mann starts by making it clear that he is not presenting “a systematic, chronological account of the Western Hemisphere’s cultural and social developments before 1492.” Instead, he says, his book explores what he believes to be the “three main foci” of the new findings: Indian demography, Indian origins, and Indian ecology. He could not possibly be comprehensive, he writes. “Instead I chose my examples from cultures that are among the best documented, or have drawn the most recent attention, or just seemed the most intriguing.”

The book begins by naming and locating many of the different peoples of South and North America with whom he is concerned, from Chile to Alaska. Mann then addresses the question of the size of the Indian population, not with demographic tables, birth and death rates, and the like, but indirectly through narratives of what happened in three regions: Massachusetts before and after the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620; Peru before and after Pizarro captured the Inka monarch in 1532; and Central and North America before and after Cortés and De Soto conquered and explored Mexico and what is now the southeastern United States.

Mann proceeds to describe the Pilgrim landing from an Indian perspective, with surprising and to me quite new detail. His first paragraphs illustrate the tone and precision of his account:

On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampa-noag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.

Massosoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated—indeed the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites. It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them….

Over time, the Wampanoag, like other native societies in coastal New England, had learned how to manage the European presence. They encouraged the exchange of goods, but would only allow their visitors to stay ashore for brief, carefully controlled excursions…. Now Massasoit was visiting a group of British with the intent of changing the rules. He would permit the newcomers to stay for an unlimited time—provided they formally allied with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.

After two more pages of description of the negotiation, Mann observes:

The alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth was successful from the Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, for the alliance assured the survival of the Plymouth colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England.

He goes on to recount the life history of Tisquantum (familiar from schoolbooks as Squanto, the friendly Indian who spoke English). He sketches the local Indian conflicts during Tisquantum’s youth, his kidnapping by an English ship and subsequent five years in Spain and England, followed by a precarious return to his birthplace to find everything destroyed by what Mann suggests was an outbreak of viral hepatitis in 1616 which lingered for three years, killing “as much as 90 percent of the coastal population of New England.” Tisquantum’s subsequent services to the Pilgrims have long been known, but Mann pays more attention to his plots to unseat Massasoit, abruptly cut off in 1622 by his sudden death from an unknown infection.

Mann’s effort to see things from an Indian perspective, inferring the motives of such figures as Massasoit and Tisquantum from European records, is generally persuasive and he supplies new background to the familiar story of Pilgrim suffering and survival. As he sums up his story:

The People of the First Light [i.e., coastal Indians] could avoid or adapt to European technology but not to European disease. Their societies were destroyed by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they had.

When Mann writes about Peru and Pizarro’s amazing conquest of the Inka Empire, his account is less engaging, and his effort to see the encounter through Indian eyes less successful. He begins by asserting: “In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth,” by which he means the biggest. This is unprovable, since boundaries of states like Russia, China, and Great Zimbabwe, with which Mann compares the Inka domain, are mapmakers’ guesses and the same is true of Inka political frontiers. A more meaningful claim would be to say that in the heartlands of their empire, Inka authorities probably mobilized their subjects to make war and build grandiose public works—most notably roads—more fully than any other contemporary rulers, though that conclusion, too, lacks statistical proof.

He does not tell us that potatoes, confiscated from the rural population, frozen in open air (night temperatures year round usually drop below 32° F. in the Andean altiplano), and refrigerated underground in artificial storehouses, were used to feed work parties recruited among a population that had little else to eat. Instead, Mann gives a detailed account of the geographical expansion of Inka power, reign by reign, based on post-conquest Spanish texts. The story is confusing; trying to tell it from an Indian point of view is not very informative, since the names of rulers do not reveal much about them; and Mann can do little more than link names with acquired territories. Indeed when he finishes his narrative he confesses that he has just “pulled a fast one” by neglecting the effects of a smallpox epidemic that devastated Peru in 1524 or 1525, an epidemic that was the really decisive factor in Spanish success and Inka collapse. So, according to Mann, after a series of rulers had made history, disease germs abruptly took over.

Nonetheless, the parallel with New England is striking:

As in New England, epidemic disease arrived before the first successful colonists. When the Europeans actually arrived, the battered, fragmented cultures could not unite to resist the incursion. Instead one party, believing that it was about to lose the struggle for dominance, allied with the invaders to improve its position. The alliance was often successful, in that the party gained the desired advantage. But its success was usually temporary and the culture as a whole always lost.

Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, this pattern occurred again and again in the Americas. It was a kind of master narrative of post-contact history. In fact, Europeans routinely lost when they could not take advantage of disease and political fragmentation.

The same was true in South Africa and other regions, though Mann does not say so.

In discussing overall estimates of the population of the Americas before Columbus, Mann does not arrive at a precise figure; nor does he endorse the anthropologist Henry Dobyns’s calculation that “in the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died.” He nonetheless concludes that American “epidemics killed one out of every five persons on earth…. It was ‘the greatest destruction of lives in human history.’”

Mann next illustrates the “master narrative of post-contact history” by showing how disease raged across lands between New England and Peru. Data from Mexico is far richer than elsewhere, and his account of the rise and fall of what he calls the “Triple Alliance” of three Indian peoples—also known as the Aztec Empire—is correspondingly full and, as usual, provocative. He concentrates on the career of a man named Tlacaélel (1398–1480), a nephew of the official leader of the Mexica Indians who “ruled from behind the scenes, dominating the Alliance for more than fifty years and utterly reengineering Mexica society.” He explains:

A visionary and a patriot, Tlacaélel believed that the Mexica were destined to rule a vast empire. But because ambition succeeds best when disguised by virtue, he wanted to furnish the Alliance with an animating ideology…. He came up with a corker: a theogony that transformed the Mexica into keepers of the cosmic order….

After the formation of the Triple Alliance, Tlacaélel “went about persuading the people,” as one Mexican historian wrote, that Huitzilopochtli was not a mere tutelary deity, but a divinity essential to the fate of humankind….

To gain strength, the sun needed chalchíhuatl—the mysterious, ineffable fluid of life-energy. The sacred mission of the Triple Alliance, Tlacaélel proclaimed, was to furnish this vital substance to Huitzilopochtli, who would then use it for the sun, postponing the death of everyone on the planet.

There was but one method for obtaining this life-energy: ritual human sacrifice.

But successful prophets believe their own words, and Mann’s imputation that Tlacaélel deliberately invented “an animating ideology” for patriotic purposes strikes me as implausible.

Mann’s effort to play down organized public sacrifice seems equally unconvincing. He endorses Cortés’s estimate that “‘three or four thousand souls’ a year” were killed in order to keep the sun shining; but he hastens to point out that Europeans also executed large numbers of criminals publicly. In fact, “if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 persons per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire.” But waging war to acquire captives for ritual slaughter is fundamentally different from criminal executions. In Europe, killing criminals was not a central aim and justification of state policy, as human sacrifices were in Mexico. Even if Mann’s guesswork about the numbers of people executed has a plausible basis—which he does not provide—his efforts to equate the two practices morally is wrongheaded.

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