1491 by Charles C. Mann (Knopf)


“The plane took in weather that was surprisingly cool for central Boliva and flew east, toward the Brazilian border.”

THE symbolism of the plane is that we now take for granted what people less than 100 years ago would never see, the earth from a different perspective. Mann is adept at bringing together  different academic fields from archeology to linguistics to social sciences to biology to aerial photography to tell us another story of where we came from. If you have read Jarred Diamond or Alfred Crosby, you will know the new territory. He is a science writer who takes on his subject with the zeal of a Perry Mason. This is his big scoop.

He has a historian’s turn of phrase. “It seems incumbent on us to take a look” he concludes chapter one…His contention, or rather the book’s explosive contention is that “when Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, the descendants of the world’s Neolithic Revolutions collided, with overwhelming consequences for all”. If you are not aware of all this, then hang on to you hat. “In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth.”

The Americas were not virgin wasteland populated by a few isolated illiterate warring painted tribes. They had already had their own Neolithic revolution centuries before Europe. The civilisations – the two big ones, the Olmecs to the north, Peru to the south –  were as large and organised as those of China or Ghengis Khan. They had technologies as advanced, the difference was they had different ideas as to what to do with them. What happened?

To support this theory you have to follow the reasoning that it was not the military might and the horses of the invading conquistadors that overran the continent. It was something they brought inadvertently with them…hepatitis and smallpox. Within decades these old world diseases had ravaged the empires. New world people had no immunity to zoonic plagues.

The native population was infected and died out within a few years of our arrival leading to the myth that there had been nothing there before. What Mann is at pains to show us now is what exactly was there…It is hard to overstate how exciting, how terrible, how awesome all this was…and not least a sense that thankfully we now live in a society where such sagas can be read safely in bed in the thick pages of  a well produced book and not happen to be there and live it.

The Bering Straits theory – that people walked from Siberia – seems less and less likely as the climactic evidence suggests the bridge between continents would only have been open for a very short period. By this time already, say pre 10,000 BC, in Peru there was extensive fishing off the coast while in the hills they were spinning cotton for nets. Further north around what we now call Mexico there were a series of major earthworks to house a succession of empires which we now call Aztec. Off shoots from here were already in New England by the time the Pilgrim Fathers arrived. We have statues, engravings, we have town outlines in the jungle, we have remains of towns and cities that would put estimates of the population as perhaps greater than Europe pre the pyramids. We have straight lines carved in the ground. We have a great wall of Peru.

Mann blends a history of what we know of these different people, an unravelling of the often bitter, bombastic scientific arguments down the years, much of which is being rewritten in this century by DNA dating, and a travelogue as he visits the sites themselves and some of the protagonists. He has set himself an awesome task.

Sometimes, he argues, that you have to think differently to interpret events. Early settlers often mentioned that the native Indians travelled with flints to set huge fires. Possibly this was a deliberate approach, a different kind of agriculture. The fires would in turn trap the animals for hunting and also in the spring create lush grazing to attract the herds of bison and other animals. Could this have been deliberate? The biggest city in north America was Cahokia outside of modern day St Louis. In 1250 AD it was bigger than London. The Mississippi was obviously crucial.

Until recently it was accepted archeological thinking that people in the Amazon rainforest subsisted on a slash and burn agricultural that could never support more than village life. But as Mann reveals this was a blinkered, imperialistic agenda. To slash and burn you would need metal saws not stone axes, so it is a recent event, post contact. Newer research leads us into different explanations. A high percentage of the trees in the rainforest are in fact fruit bearing. Is it possible they were planted as a secret orchard?

And then we have the terra pata compost which has been found around inhabited sites and ruins. This terra pata is remarkable stuff, based on charcoal and natural degradings, the plants are far more productive than even those fed modern fertilisers. It is found in trenches two feet and more deep alongside ruins. With this kind of soil, you could perhaps have fed sites of 100,00 people or more. One thing about it is sure, it has to be man made, to burn the charcoal…and it predates contact by millenia. Fascinating stuff.

He constructs his arguments carefully, taking respectfully on board both sides…he starts with straight lines, then maize which could not have fertilised itself naturally, the invention of the mathematical zero and then to the numbers. How many people could have lived here. How did they support themselves. What did they eat?

Most worrying perhaps to emerge from this wonderful book is how, time and again, great civilisations and empires managed to disappear so quickly for reasons we can now only guess at…European germs were not the only culprits, just a relatively recent one.



About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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