As a bibliophile, when reading ancient history I often feel a sense of lamentation for the loss of the cultural historical record so often destroyed through war, pillage, and natural disaster. Sumeria is championed as the first ancient culture, but societies change and morph, building off of one another: the truth is that Sumeria was the first that we have record of. What if there were countless more before Sumeria that were destroyed and lost? This thought is not merely reflective of prehistory but applies to the many societies that thrived and fell after that first society. When reading through the histories of the world there are countless patterns of historical records lost through the ages as one culture burns the books of another, destroying their temples, and defacing their statues as the victor so often claims authority to erase the record of the fallen culture. An examining mind is lead to wonder what wealth of knowledge has been lost and if that knowledge from the fallen cultures had survived what would its influence be upon the movement direction of history?
These are questions that the journalist Charles Mann tackles in his book title 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann explores the world inhabited in the Northern, Southern and Central American continents and invites his reader to “think of the fruitful impact in Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia [and] imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia” (124). That second Asia being the Americas and the wealth of cultural history, philosophy, agricultural practice, and art that existed before its peoples were wiped out by the diseases brought to its shores by the European explorers and conquistadors.
This is an intriguing book, yet it should be acknowledged that its approach and style is flavored with a hint of sensationalism. Mann is a journalist by profession and although the book is rich with academic resources, his argument is primarily supported by his interviews with anthropologists, historians, and scientists that are often uncertain about the validity of the changing theories that attempt to explain and understand the breadth, scope, and age of Native American/ “Indian” history and influence across the Americas. The trouble with accepting the validity of these theories is obvious since so few pre-Columbian societies employed writing (primarily the Aztec and the Maya and possibly the Inca) and therefore we are left without a rich historical record to rely upon in our attempts to understand these scattered and often extinct peoples. The lack of written records available is further complicated by the lamentable fact that the surviving records are only a fraction of what was saved before it was destroyed by conquistadors that believed the Indian writing to be idolatrous signs of the devil’s work. Had the ways, philosophies, and lifestyle of these people not been destroyed by overzealous Christian missionaries and gold hungry conquistadors it is possible that the influence of a surviving and thriving Native American culture may have reshaped the exchange of the very ideas of history, science, and governance today.
What does exist for the curious mind’s reflection are the artifacts of ruins, pottery, arrowheads, and artwork scattered across the Americas. There is ongoing research into the stories buried within the artifacts and the research paints a picture of a pre-Columbian America that was as populated and if not more populated than Europe and Asia during the same time. Of course there are the obvious mega-cultures known in Mexico (the Triple Alliance, otherwise known as the Aztec), central America (the Maya), and the Andes (the Inca). We know of the Aztec and the Inca primarily because these were the major governments existing at the time when Cortes and Pizzaro landed in the Americas searching for gold and conquest. Mann’s book does focus on these well known cultures, but it important to note that these were of importance during that particular slice of time. There were several other large societies with governments (as evidenced by the implied force of labor required to build structures) and profound agricultural techniques (the development of corn/maize and the practice of burning vegetation to shape the habitable environment) that were extant in many regions previously not thought ecologically capable of sustaining large societies such as the Amazon and the Mississippi valley.
Surprisingly, the reevaluation of old evidence and theories alongside the ongoing research that reveals new discoveries of profound archaeological evidence has caused researchers to continuously rethink the age, presence and expanse of these large societies within America. The crossing of the Bering Strait during the Ice Age some 12,000 years ago has long been a grammar school textbook explanation of the migration of peoples from Asian Siberia into the Americas, but new discoveries of human remains in southern Chile and the Amazon basis suggest that humans may have been on these continents longer than the time frame proposed by the Bering Strait migration. The Bering Strait may have been just one of many migrations.
Another theory that Mann illuminates is the extent of the Indian population. It is well understood that many of the native Americans were unfortunately wiped out by disease when Europeans came to these continents after 1492. What is not commonly understood is the scope of the loss of life. When Jamestown was colonized the Eastern coast appeared desolate and empty. When Pizzaro conquered Peru the Inca army appeared undermanned.
The apparent underpopulation of these regions was likely an anomaly and not a true representation of the presence of native peoples in the Americas. The widespread transfer of disease had massively depopulated the region years before Pizzaro or the Jamestown settlers laid foot on American soil. The first contact with Europeans years before these events had caused smallpox and other non-native disease to spread like wildfire due to the native’s susceptibility to these foreign disease. It has been a longstanding theory that European’s relative immunity to smallpox and other diseases inherited from domesticated animals was a major factor since the Americas lacked few beasts of domestication. However, there have been longstanding arguments about how many native Americans had actually died out and new genetic analysis provides an illumination with data that indicates that the number of deaths due to European disease may have been far higher than ever imagined. Genetic data that shows the native Americans have fewer human leukocyte antigens that unfortunately made the “people of the New World unusually susceptible to diseases of the Old” (105) implying that the death toll may have been as great as half of the world human population at the time. Mann is very clear in his argument that this susceptibility to disease should not imply that native Americans are genetically inferior to Europeans, but should be considered when evaluating the reasons why so many peoples could have died in such a short time.
These ideas are just a snapshot of what Mann discusses in his book. There is plenty here for anyone to rediscover a sense of awe and appreciation for the broad and diverse impact that humanity has left upon the “new” world long before it was “discovered” by voyagers from the “old” world. There is even evidence to suggest that there were great societies in this hemisphere existing and thriving at the same time that Sumeria was coming to power in the Eastern Hemisphere. I’ll close my reflection about this intriguing book by acknowledging that for a book titled 1491 I must point out that Mann did invest a lot of energy discussing historical records that were documented after the year 1492, and the book is soiled with the journalist’s opinions and need to write a compelling narrative. Despite these weaknesses this is an influential and thought provoking record that will live on as a reference on my shelves.