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In his recent book, 1491, Charles C. Mann reports upon controversial emerging trends in archeology, history, anthropology and other disciplines that study humankind in the Americas before the Europeans arrived in 1492. The most striking of these is the view that the condition of these continents before the Europeans arrived was the exact opposite of what these sciences, and everybody, really, had previously supposed.

Rather than the previously postulated pristine wilderness, little touched by the hand of man, both North and South America, and Mesoamerica in between, consisted of systems engineered by the hand of man to support populations far larger than previously imagined. The forests, river valleys and grasslands of Eastern North America, for example, were carefully husbanded to supply the needs of life for extensive, large population centers. Maize cultivation flourished everywhere in a highly successful agricultural tradition that had proved self sustaining for millennia.

These societies were well organized and capable of massive public works to modify the environment to suit their needs. Terracing, roads, irrigation works, canals, reservoirs, and huge cities existed everywhere in this hemisphere, even in the Amazon, which itself may be an artifact of Eco-agriculture carried out by humans for thousands of years.

All of this human accomplishment was wiped out almost instantly when Europeans arrived carrying all manner of disease unknown in the New World. The book explores the scientific reasons for this at some length. Old World populations lived in proximity to numerous animal species that didn't exist in the Western Hemisphere. A side effect of this was the occasional mutation of some animal disease to a human form. As a result, the Europeans arriving after 1491 carried all manner of diseases for which they themselves enjoyed robust immunity, but which were unlike anything ever before encountered by the unprepared immune systems of the original peoples of the hemisphere.

Randy Newman's lyric puts it like this in his historically descriptive song, The Great Nations of Europe, "Bullets, disease, the Portuguese, they weren't there any more. . . . They got TB and typhoid and athlete's foot, diphtheria and the flu.  'Scuze me, Great Nations coming through."  

So, one important lesson of 1491 is about the chaos and destruction that follows when alien biological systems encounter one another, such as Randy Newman's "bug from out of Africa". Just 500 years ago, humanity, by the millions, was apparently wiped out by such bugs, in the course of a couple of generations, across an entire hemisphere of this planet. One constant of human existence has always been that sooner or later there is another devastating plague. The next really bad one, however, will more likely arise not because of Newman's figurative bug from Africa, but because of a virus from a genetics lab, released either by accident or ill intent.

Perhaps a more important lesson from 1491 is political in nature. The new discoveries and insights into the societies and cultures of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the European scourges teach a great deal about what communities working together can accomplish. Many highly organized cultures experienced great success bringing general prosperity to large populations, being more civilized on a more widespread basis, by many measures of civilization, than much of Europe, Asia and Africa at the same time in history. Most of them did this without making trade and commerce the cause of all prosperity, as we do, but one of prosperity's effects.

Human accomplishments in the Western Hemisphere before 1491 demonstrate that there are more ways to organize societies on a large scale than we previously imagined. I find the idea particularly intriguing that the Amazon forest was cultivated to support large human populations. This vast expanse of South America was previously thought by leading scholars to have been always uninhabitable. Because of the importance, now, of the Amazon as a giant CO2 sink, as humans attempt to re-inhabit the forest one hopes they can learn from the success of those who, so successfully, sustainably abided there before.

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 10:54 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  That is an amazing book. It took longer by far (7+ / 0-)

    to read and digest than Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" , but was every bit as grief inducing. Like your sigline , as well.

    •  The Ugly Beauty of Science (6+ / 0-)

      Mann's debunking of earlier scientific thinking on the matters in question creates a completely different historical context for life in the Americas than we have always been taught and seen portrayed in the arts and our histories.

      The ugly part of this becomes evident when climate change deniers or evolution deniers go on about how science has no real answers, only theories. Though irrelevant, this is true because all scientific disciplines require the rejection of past assumptions that are disproven by new evidence. The beauty of it is that the answers keep getting better.

      I would love to see a film set pre-1491, in Eastern North America, with carefully tended park like forests extending for miles and miles, herded and husbanded, if not domesticated herds of bison and deer, widespread, populous settlements. extensive agriculture and grassland management (that's right, Indians created the grass prairies of the great plains) with sophisticated political alliances, etc. A pretty cool story could be set in a world like that.

      Save the U.S. Postal Service, an august, efficient, trusted and indispensable American institution.

      by LeftOfYou on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 01:24:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  when you finish 1491, read 1493 (7+ / 0-)

    I could not agree more with the diarist's appraisal of 1491. It should be required reading in every high school in the land (although it would probably be banned in Arizona).

    By all means, read 1491, a book that will change your outlook on human society while amazing and astounding you.

    And then read 1493, Mann's excellent sequel to continue the story of how biology, societies, economics, and a myriad other systems collided after the "discovery" of the New World. It will further amaze you.

    OK. And now we begin the part of the show where we pull out individual words and phrases of the commenter to try to determine the "real" meaning of the comment.... let the games begin.

    by hillbrook green on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 01:25:04 PM PDT

  •  I think the Roman Empire was anti-nature and (4+ / 0-)

    because of that western civilization is still so blind to the power and nurturing  structure of the natural way of things.

    just because man invented God, does not mean that God does not exist

    by MikeMcShea on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 01:47:41 PM PDT

    •  The Romans Loved Steel and Stone (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cacamp, Aunt Pat, foresterbob, mookins

      South American civilizations, for example, loved textiles.

      To Romans, gold was currency for business and trade.

      To Incas, gold was glorious decoration for public spaces enjoyed by all.

      Contrasts abound.  

      I also noticed Mann's reference to research suggesting that widespread civilization may have arisen in South America prior to when it did in Mesopotamia, suggesting that perhaps the New World is the Old World, and visa versa.

      Save the U.S. Postal Service, an august, efficient, trusted and indispensable American institution.

      by LeftOfYou on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 01:59:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Inca and the Maya and the Aztecs piled up (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mookins, PeterHug

        quite a few stones.  And I suspect they'd have found steel pretty attractive if they had discovered the process.  Manns' book is fascinating but please resist the tendency to romanticize and extrapolate beyond the evidence.

        Where are we, now that we need us most?

        by Frank Knarf on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 05:02:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I am delighted that there are those who (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, LeftOfYou

    acknowledge the probability the Europeans likely killed off many millions of humans and tens of thousands of blood lines and peoples with disease, from coast to coast, likely with in a few years of the first Europeans landing on the mainland.

    I do disagree that the next pandemic will be man made, as bacteria and viruses can reproduce and mutate in the trillions compared with the relatively slow motion genetic altering performed in labs.
    That is not to say that the intentional produce of a man made more deathly mutants of something like the plague is not seriously dangerous.

    But the real danger is that any highly contagious disease to which there is no natural resistance can now be spread world wide in a matter of weeks.
    There would be no way for the scientific and medical community to respond quickly enough to prevent the death of most of or even all of the human population.

    Think about SARS and how quickly it spread.  A similar more deadly mutant with a longer incubatin period (SARS has a quite short incubation period) could be spread widely before its deadly symptoms began to manifest.

    Or annihilation, if you think about it, is not such a bad thing as it would give the earth a few hundred million years to recover from the destructive effects of Homo sapiens.

  •  "1491" brought together the latest science (6+ / 0-)

    The newest science is especially hard to spread in America because it flies in the face of so many of the USA's most cherished myths. Americans would rather believe they came upon a deserted paradise and 'conquored' it. They would rather believe that the inhabitants were "primitive" hunters and gatherers and not full blown advanced civilizations. They would rather believe Native Americans came here over a ficticious 'land bridge' after the last ice age rather than having been here for many millinia before the ice age. They would much rather believe that the Amazon Basin is a "pristine" jungle habitat whch should never be touched. They would rather believe that the American Constitution is purely an European construct decended from Rome and England. Most of all they would rather believe that "Manifest Destiny" wasn't an evil, racist concept which was legitimized by all the other American myths.

    But all those myths and many more are debunked by new science only some of which is brought to light in "1491".

    Thanks for the diary. it's badly needed.

    America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

    by cacamp on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 02:31:38 PM PDT

    •  I take many issues with what you have (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LeftOfYou, Frank Knarf, badger, burnt out

      written here.

      1) The clovis first idea and the bering land bridge were sensible theories that were based on the limited set of data that was available. They were not based on some bullshit ideology. At the time, all of the earliest excavated sites were of either the North American Clovis type (fluted points) or South American Fish-shaped points. All dating to between 10-12k years ago. It is just recently that earlier sites have been found, and most professionals have readily accepted the new data. We are still not really sure what exactly happened in the first migrations, we need much more data, but it is clear that Clovis was not first. I don't understand why this is some kind of scandal. Also, the land bridge did exist, I have never seen any evidence that disputes that fact---it just seems more likely that humans migrated to the Americas in a different way--perhaps along the coast.

      2) Why does everyone dis the hunter-gatherers. I have done a lot of research on hunter-gatherers and I think that they in many ways were more sophisticated than we are today, and should not be referred to as "primitive". For example, read up on the Archaic period buffalo hunters of the Great Plains of the US. These people studied the buffalo scientifically and developed sophisticated means of herding and killing them that required extensive knowledge. The type that can only have developed through studies of animal behavior. The same is true for the way the HNG exploited plants, including medicinal ones.  

      Mann does a good job of synthesizing and presenting data, and for the most part he has gone through painstaking means to get his information right. However, he has also overdramatized some of his findings. Most of what comes out in his book is just new data being incorporated into the field. Kudos to him for synthesizing it.

      I don't think there has been any political agenda to quiet any of this material, it is more like the general public has no interest in science.

      For example, archaeologists have uncovered an amazing amount of data on Ancient Egypt over the last 20-25 years. They have found the quarries that were used to make the blocks the pyramids are built with. Yet, more people know about what Graham Hancock has to say or what the "Alien theorists" of the show Ancient Aliens propose. It seems, quite simply, that the general public is more interested in outlandish ideas proposed by non-scientists.

      That's not completely the scientists fault---although I think we could be better at writing books for the public. It saddens me that geographers like Diamond and journalists like Mann are the ones who are getting read. I am sure that 99% of the public has no idea of the general research that has been taking place--even though hundreds of professional books and articles have been published.

      That's not to say that some information has been manipulated for political or popular benefit in the past. A good example of this is the moundbuilder debate, which initially was used to demonstrate the "savagery" of the contemporary Indian people. I often wonder why Americans today are so ignorant of the mound cultures of the southeastern US. I mean when I talk about Cahokia my students always ask "That site is in the U.S.?" However, archaeologists have been publishing books on the moundbuilders since the late 1800s, when Cyrus Thomas put to rest the notion that they were built by anyone other than the ancestors of the modern Indian tribes. No one has been trying to hide this information from anyone. People just aren't interested--they would rather watch snookie.

      "If you don't sin, then Jesus died for nothing!" (on a sign at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans)

      by ranger995 on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 03:42:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Americans" did come upon a deserted paradise. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ranger995

      Most of the native population was dead, by accident, from disease, within a century of contact.  And where did you get the bizarre notion that the land bridge was a fiction?  The genetic evidence is clear enough though there is certainly evidence of some migration from the Atlantic side a bit earlier.

      Where are we, now that we need us most?

      by Frank Knarf on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 05:09:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think he/she might be referring to the ice-free (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        burnt out, PeterHug

        corridor, which probably did not exist and just wrote land bridge, which did exist.

        That would make sense, because the concept of the ice-free corridor had a lot to do with the Clovis first theory, and new climatic data that suggests the ice-free corridor did not exist certainly throws a monkey wrench into the Clovis theory.

        Also the evidence you are talking about comes from Stanford and Bradley right? Both are well-respected archaeologists, but there are a lot of people who have refuted their work and aren't buying the Atlantic route.

        Even Stanford admits that the genetic evidence shows that the vast majority of migrants came from Asia. So, if there was a migration across the Atlantic is was minute.

        I just bought their book Across Atlantic Ice, I find their argument interesting, but it is not readily accepted by the community. I suppose we'll be arguing about it for a few years to come.

        Unfortunately, some white supremacist groups have taken Stanford and Bradley's data and used it to suggest some bullshit like the first Americans were white and they were wiped out in a genocide by Asians. Total bullshit, and I am sorry that two good researcher' data is being used that way.

        "If you don't sin, then Jesus died for nothing!" (on a sign at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans)

        by ranger995 on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 05:22:36 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  right, I meant the ice free corridor (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          indubitably

          but what is galling is that so much of this has been known in the scientific community but is still not accepted in mainstream thinking. Most books continue to ascribe the the corridor and our migration over it as the path to populating this continent. But the truth is it wasn't at all scientific, it was made up out of whole cloth and never challenged by real science because it fit the myths. It was and is "bullshit ideology" and was never backed by facts.

          As for Clovis, I don't know what you mean by "recent" but I've known for a couple of decades that real science refuted Clovis being first. It was a couple of entrenched old acedemics whose careers were invested in clovis who stopped the true science from being given the credit it is now getting. I'm also sure you know who I'm speaking about and how they interfered. Their "bullshit ideology hindered the advancment of science until they died even though the facts were put before their eyes.

          Even in this thread you can see a person arguing such things as an Atlantic migration, in fact you also take what I said out of context to argue against what I said. I never "dissed" hunter gatherers as primitive in fact just the opposite I objected to them being catigorized as such. But the real point I was making is that North America was populated by modern (for their day) civilizations marked by large cities and settled populations. Not "primitine mankind" as the myths would have it. Being a decendant of Ponca buffalo hunters I know full well the science and sophistication it took for my people to sustain their societies but most Americans prefer the "primative" myth.

          The thought that there was a migration across the atlantic is itself science fiction made up by acheologists who were using it as a political bludgeon against our tribes efforts in NAGPRA to protect our ancestors remains. They may have been "respected" but they're full of shit.

          America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

          by cacamp on Sun Apr 29, 2012 at 12:47:07 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well, I am not going to argue that the Smithsonian (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            indubitably

            hasn't been horrible with its stalling and fighting the repatriation of the skeletal "collection". They have been awful about it, while almost every other institution has been much better.

            For many cases there is no telling which tribes they belong to, and that is the bullshit explanation the Smithsonian has used to keep the materials. If they were respectful, they would just bury them or something with a number of tribes present. It is disgraceful, so I am not going to argue against you there.

            When I worked on the BP oil spill, human remains were washing on to the shore from a submerged Archaeological site. We invited the tribal representatives from numerous groups to repatriate them--even though we were unsure who they might belong to. The conducted a ceremony, buried the remains, and we cordoned the area off. The Smithsonian certainly could and should do something similar, but on a national scale. It would be more beneficial to all parties.

            "If you don't sin, then Jesus died for nothing!" (on a sign at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans)

            by ranger995 on Sun Apr 29, 2012 at 02:09:35 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  It's a great book, and I am glad people are (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob, RainyDay, burnt out, PeterHug

    reading it. I only lament that it is only this book that makes people interested in these findings. I guess people need the sensationalist aspect.

    The Spaniards wrote about the enormous populations they encountered with awe. Bernal Diaz del Castillo writes about how taken about they were when they first gazed upon the city of Tenochtitlan. Of course, much of this has been filtered through British Colonial and American history by the "Black Legend".

    The professional community has been aware of most of this information for quite a while, yet you don't know how many people I run into that talk to me about 1941 as though they themselves have just made some stunning revelation.

    Oh well, that's something I can endure if it means people are learning the material.

    "If you don't sin, then Jesus died for nothing!" (on a sign at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans)

    by ranger995 on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 05:28:53 PM PDT

  •  I read 1493, it's about the Homogenocene. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou

    t's a very accessible read. Charles C. Mann provides provoking thoughts and uncommon views about our shared history.

    Thank you for your diary.

    I have 1491 on my reading list. If you get a chance, Rainbow Pie by Joe Baegent might peek your interest.

    An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second..Jefferson's Letter to Peter Carr

    by JugOPunch on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 06:50:07 PM PDT

  •  bartram also says (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou, Abra Crabcakeya

    as i recall, the entire south was civilized, inhabited, under agriculture, fields upon fields, native americans.

    of course cortez said the market in mexico city was larger than any in europe.

    war is immoral. both parties are now fully complicit in the wars. bring everyone home. get to work.

    by just want to comment on Sat Apr 28, 2012 at 07:08:04 PM PDT

  •  While this book makes many good points, I (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PeterHug, ranger995

    wouldn't treat its conclusions as settled science. It is pretty non-controversial that European diseases killed 90-95% of Indians. But the degree of landscape engineering, especially in North America and Amazonia, is anything but settled.

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