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.
Mann goes on to explore classical literature in the Nahuatl language, observing that “Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimated that it was well on its way.” He writes:
Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!
But as we all know, Cortés and smallpox combined to overthrow the Triple Alliance just as Pizarro was soon to overthrow the Inka in Peru; and the same pattern of post-contact history can be seen elsewhere. In conclusion, Mann draws on his interviews with a “smallpox historian,” Elizabeth Fenn, to conclude that “the consequential finding of the new scholarship is not that many people died but that many people lived. The Americas were filled with an enthusiastically diverse assortment of peoples who had knocked about the continents for millennia.” Fenn told him, “We are talking about enormous numbers of people. You have to wonder, Who were all these people? And what were they doing?” Mann wondered; his book is the result.
Part Two asks three questions: When did Indians arrive in the Americas? When did they begin to cultivate the soil, and when did what Mann indiscriminately calls “cities”—i.e., extensive agricultural settlements clustering around monumental buildings—appear in different places? His short answer is: “In almost every case, Indian societies have been revealed to be older, grander, and more complex than was thought possible even twenty years ago.”
From the start, Europeans had difficulty fitting Indians into the chronology of biblical history. A common solution was to identify them as descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel; and since those tribes disappeared from the Bible after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 BC, that implied subsequent arrival in the Americas. By the nineteenth century biblical chronology was abandoned; but not until the 1920s did archaeological discoveries of elegantly shaped spearheads at Folsom, New Mexico, unambiguously prove that prehistoric big game hunters once lived on American soil. Then in 1932 differently shaped spearheads were found at Clovis, New Mexico, and, along with them, the bones of extinct mammoths, horses, and bison. Radiocarbon dating, invented in 1948, soon showed that sites where the Clovis spearheads had been found dated to between 13,500 and 12,900 years ago.
For a while the Clovis big game hunters were the oldest known Americans; but could they have been progenitors of all the diverse Indians in North and South America? Linguistic and other experts doubted they could; and between 1977 and 1997 excavations at Monte Verde in southern Chile convinced a team of archaeologists “that paleo-Indians had occupied Monte Verde at least 12,800 years ago. Not only that, they turned up suggestive indications of human habitation more than 32,000 years ago.” This claim provoked heated debate; three other pre-Clovis sites have since become subjects of similar controversies among scholars.
Among others, Knut Fladmark from Simon Fraser University in Canada has suggested that instead of walking overland from Asia, as previously assumed, human beings might have come by boat. Pollen from ocean sediment close to the present coastline showed that
even in the depths of the Ice Age warm southern currents created temperate refuges along the shore…. Hopping from refuge to refuge, paleo-Indians could have made their way down the coast at any time in the last forty thousand years. “Even primitive boats,” Fladmark has written, “could traverse the entire Pacific coast of North and South America in less than 10–15 years.”
Mann finds this very plausible and so do I. But melting glaciers raised sea levels everywhere, so hope of any tangible trace of such navigation is vain.
Obviously, new evidence will continue to affect the debate about origins; but Mann concludes,
What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years…. If [the evidence from] Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.
His next question is, when did American agriculture begin and when were large monumental buildings first constructed? According to Mann, the oldest known monumental buildings cluster near the Peruvian coast in a region called Norte Chico, and date from as early as 3500 BC. They were constructed by Indians whose main sources of food were the anchovies and other kinds of fish that come from the nutrient-rich Humboldt current. Catching them in large quantities required nets made of cotton raised on irrigated fields along local river banks.
Mann regards Norte Chico as the prototype of Peru’s many and very diverse high cultures:
The primacy of exchange [of goods] over a wide area, the penchant for collective, festive civic work projects, the high valuation of textiles and textile technology—Norte Chico, it seems possible to say, set the template for all of them.
Mann’s explanation for the emergence of South American civilizations was new and surprising to me. For instead of an economy based on grain, Norte Chico depended on food from the sea and on growing cotton.
Mann then takes up the origins of maize and of the distinctive mingling of maize, beans, and squash in garden-like milpas that was central to the economy of Mexican high cultures. This story is amazing in showing how pertinacious ingenuity created a nutritious food from unpromising wild plants, but it is entirely familiar. Similarly Mann’s accounts of Olmec, Mexic, and Mayan monumental architecture and other expressions of civilization—writing, calendars, mathematics, and organized warfare—offer new details but no important surprises.
When he surveys Peruvian cultures subsequent to Norte Chico and the later civilizations on the altiplano, he spends only part of a paragraph on potatoes, the “staple crop of the highlands,” perhaps because nothing is known of how they first came to be cultivated. Maize, coming from Mexico, and grown on irrigated terraces cut into the lower slopes of the Andes, did in fact become “the grain of choice for the elite,” overshadowing Peru’s native grain crop, quinoa, which Mann does not even mention.
In general, Mann’s history of Andean cultures before the Inka conquests is sketchy, understandably so, since without readable texts, archaeologists have not been able to recreate their thought worlds. “So far in this section,” he writes,
I have mainly described the economic and political history of Andean Indians. But people live also in the realm of the affective and aesthetic…. Despite all the knowledge gained by scientists in the last few decades, this emotional realm remains much harder to reach.
Having made a convincing case for the antiquity and variety of Indian high cultures, Mann turns to the subject of Indian ecology, arguing that human beings made a deep imprint on the American environment. From the first, hunters and gatherers used fire to reshape the landscape and improve hunting. Farmers altered the landscape far more drastically. “Occasionally researchers,” Mann writes, “can detail their process [of ecological change] with some precision, as in the case of the Maya. More often one can only see the outlines of history, as in the reconfiguration of the eastern half of the United States.” He goes on to argue that war was more important in the collapse of Mayan cities than ecological stress, while the collapse of the Cahokia settlement (near modern St. Louis) was caused by mistakes in managing the water supply.
What most astonished me was Mann’s discussion of recently discovered evidence for large-scale tropical gardening both on flat savanna lands in Bolivia and along the rivers of Brazilian Amazonia:
By about four thousand years ago the Indians of the lower Amazon were growing crops—at least 138 of them, according to a recent tally. The staple then as now was manioc…a hefty root that Brazilians roast, chop, fry, ferment, and grind into an amazing variety of foods.
These early farmers solved the problem of what Mann calls “rainfall physics”; they were able to control the leaching and other damaging effects of heavy rainfall on exposed Amazonian soils by planting fruit and nut trees to protect their fields. One of Mann’s expert informants argued that much of the Amazon tropical rain forest was in fact “‘anthropogenic’—directly or indirectly created by humans.”
Equally striking is the finding that relatively small patches of fertile dark earth started to appear along Amazonia’s riverbanks some two thousand years ago. Human beings created this unusually productive soil, Mann tells us, by adding charcoal to the natural mineral mix. The results were spectacular. According to Mann, a recent test conducted on rice and sorghum plots near Manaus, Brazil, showed that “those treated with a combination of charcoal and fertilizer yielded as much as 880 percent more than the plots with fertilizer alone.” Can this be so? One wonders if the number 880 is a typographical error since an increase of 80 percent would be extraordinary. If the test results can be reproduced, this technique, according to Mann, “might improve the expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa—a final gift from the peoples who brought us tomatoes, maize, manioc, and a thousand different ways of being human.”
Summing up, Mann says, “At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush.” But when catastrophic disease paralyzed human activities, ecological balances changed abruptly. Mann even seeks to shatter the familiar image of vast buffalo herds roaming the prairies from time immemorial. In the absence of enough Indian hunters to control their numbers, he writes, “the massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to again.”
For a reader who has followed the literature of at least some of his subjects over the years, Mann’s book has many surprises—some convincing, some dubious. Often I was entranced; equally I was often put off by hyperbolic statements—not usually by Mann himself but attributed to one or another of his informants. Clearly he wants to startle the reader, and sought out—or perhaps provoked—extreme opinions among quarreling experts.
Yet the answers he gives to the large questions he has chosen to address—about numbers of people, origins of civilizations, and ecology—are clear and convincing. In my view, the most significant new findings he presents concern the scale and character of tropical gardening in Amazonia. The tropical gardening of Southeast Asia, from which rice emerged, and became even more important to the contemporary world’s food supply than maize, much resembles what he describes in the Amazon. Crops differed; but the combination of tree farming with crop farming, and intensive improvement of soils and reshaping of terrain by unaided human labor, were the same. Recent research hints that tropical farming in Southeast Asia may have been as old or older than grain farming in Western Asia. Mann leads me to suppose the same may be so for the Americas, where tropical farming of manioc in the Amazon region may be as old or older than maize cultivation. If this is so we can discern a pleasing symmetry between Asian and American development as well as a major revision of older notions of agricultural history.
On the other hand, Mann’s effort to present Indian societies as fully equivalent if not superior to those of Eurasia is unconvincing. The greater vulnerability of Indian societies to epidemics is certain. So is the fact that domesticated animals gave Eurasians manifold advantages—not least their stronger resistance to epidemics. Many of the diseases transmitted within herds of animals—particularly cattle and pigs—also infected human beings, who eventually developed immunity to them. Lacking such herds and the consequent human immunities, American Indians were vulnerable to diseases imported from Europe. Domesticated animals also supplied food—both meat and milk—and enlarged the capacities of European and Asian peoples for transportation with all the consequent advantages for extended exchange of goods and ideas. Similarly, for water transport, Eurasian ships and navigation were far superior to anything Indians knew.
Human muscles worked wonders in American fields and forests, but the enlarged energy that domesticated animals put at human disposal throughout most of Eurasia gave Old World peoples persistent, pervasive advantages over anything within the reach of American Indians. Mann ought to have recognized that fact and, in general, he should have toned down his denigration of European accomplishments. I conclude that 1491 is a wonderfully provocative and informative book, but not always a reliable one.
December 1, 2005