Charles C. Mann's new book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus , published in August by Knopf, is already a best-seller and has made the New York Times list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. As the Times put it, "This sweeping portrait of pre-Columbian civilization argues that it was far more populous and sophisticated than previously thought."
In fact, Mann's book is a blockbuster. It brings together results of the latest scientific research that has been focused on learning about the American hemisphere before the so-called 'discovery' by Columbus. Mann presents this research in an easy, personable style that allows readers to understand issues and concepts in complex fields like linguistics, genetics, carbon dating, soil geography, and epidemiology.
Combining these fields with recent findings from anthropology and archaeology, Mann builds an overwhelming critique of conventional stereotypes of the 'new world': he shows that the indigenous population was significantly greater and Indigenous Societies significantly more complex than the stereotypical views present. Instead of a few wandering groups scattered over the land, Mann shows that the latest research documents the existence of millions of people in widespread and intricate civilizations throughout the hemisphere, who succumbed not because they were 'inferior' to the colonizing invaders, but because they had no immunity to the imported diseases. Epidemics reduced whole Peoples to remnants unable to defend themselves and their lands.
The publication of Mann's book shifts the entire paradigm of 'discovery,' colonization, and the history of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. This book provides the foundation for a scientific history of the Americas. No longer do we have to base our critique of the Bering Strait theory (or, as the late Vine Deloria, Jr., called it, the BS theory) and all its attendant nonsense about a 'vacant land' only on our gut instincts and traditional stories; now we can locate in one book the results of advanced Western science that support our understandings.
Indian Country Today met Charles Mann at one of the numerous public lectures he has been presenting in the wake of his book's publication. He graciously accepted an invitation to participate in an interview for the newspaper, through an email exchange.
ICT: First, let us thank you for the enormously important work you have done in writing this book. As our introduction to this interview says, we consider 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus to be a paradigm-shifting event.
CM: That’s very kind of you. I guess I’d be more modest. I tried in my book to show that if you take the long view how a lot of different research in different fields seems to fit together into a single big picture—a fascinating one, to my mind.
ICT: Let's start with a personal question: What motivated you to take on this huge project?
CM: It didn’t start out that way. I’m a correspondent in the news division of the journal Science . Twenty-plus years ago the journal sent me to cover a NASA expedition that was trying to learn about the depletion of ozone layer. The scientists had a plane that flew across the hemisphere, from way up north to way down south, sampling the upper atmosphere. We stopped in Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula. For some reason the scientists had the next day off, and we all rented a VW bus to see some of the Maya ruins. I was completely astonished by them. I’d lived in Italy for a couple years, so I knew something about the Roman ruins, and these seemed to me to be every bit as sophisticated and beautiful—and much bigger. I’d learned about ancient Rome in high school, but not about the Maya. I thought, How come this wasn’t part of the curriculum?
Over the next few years, I wangled assignments that would take me to various parts of the Americas, and I always took a day or two extra to see ancient sites. I used the journalist’s privilege to call up strangers and asked archaeologists and anthropologists and tribal officials what to see. And over time I slowly built up a picture of what these people thought the Americas before Columbus looked like, a picture that was extremely different from what I had been taught in school. Then, in the 1990s, my son was taught by his school exactly what I had been taught in my school—ideas that I knew were three or four decades out of date. So I thought, “Gee, somebody should write a book.”
ICT: As a writer, your focus has generally been on science, and you have received prestigious awards for the best American Science Writing. How did your experience with science writing shape your approach to the problems of pre-Columbian history?
CM: The most truthful answer to your question would be “I’m not sure.” But let me take a guess. Most historians are trained to work with only a few types of evidence—written documents, interviews, that kind of thing. Scientists are opportunists who will use almost anything if it can provide solid data. To learn about the prehistory of the Americas, one must go beyond the written record, interesting as it is, to a host of novel techniques—pollen analysis, AMS dating, ice-core sampling, hydrological modeling, multispectra analysis, mitochondrial DNA testing, and so on. This wasn’t unfamiliar stuff to me, and so I’m perhaps more comfortable with it than writers who don’t operate out of the scientific tradition.
A second way that I might have benefited is that by coming to this subject from a background in the physical sciences, as opposed to the social sciences, is that I may have been less inhibited by some ancient prejudgments. Of course, the downside is that I may have made some beginner’s mistakes.
ICT: Your book shows many ways that modern science supports observations of the earliest explorers and adventurers from Christian Europe, especially with regard to indigenous population size, density, and sophistication. Did this congruence between science and old travel diaries surprise you?
CM: Not really. To be sure, the European travelers had their own agendas (to put it mildly) and were not always the most reliable witnesses (to say the least). Yet I would agree with the historian Woodrow Borah, who observed that sixteenth-century Europeans knew how to count and observe. So if a bunch of them said there were lots of people in, say, the Amazon basin, it seemed to me that the default hypothesis would be that there had been, in fact, a lot of people at that place. Therefore I wasn’t terribly surprised when other types of evidence seemed to confirm it.
ICT: We were surprised to learn from your book how recent major scientific findings in many fields would not have been possible only 50 years ago. Carbon dating, for example, was only invented as a scientific tool in the 1950s, and revolutionized archaeology. Tell us about the kinds of new science upon which your book is based.
CM: I’ve already mentioned some of them. One way to summarize the new methods would be to say that they represent the last forty years’ worth of innovation in fields such as demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image analysis (or whatever you call the techniques for interpreting satellite photography), palynology (pollen analysis), molecular biology, and soil science. Also some other fields that I’ve forgotten at the moment.
ICT: One area of research you discuss is disease-related population loss. The author, Harold Napoleon, writing about Alaska Native villages, in Yuuyaraq: the way of the human being, wrote that people were so shocked by the "trauma of disease and the collapse of their world" that they succumbed to colonial aggression. Can you explain how epidemics and colonial aggression were interrelated factors in the subjugation of Indigenous Peoples?
CM: Without epidemic diseases, Europeans would have had a much harder time taking over the hemisphere. In fact, most of the time that Europeans tried to colonize the Americas in the absence of epidemic disease their efforts failed, usually because local people got tired of them and threw them out. (I’m hedging here by saying “most of the time”; offhand, I can’t think of a contrary example, but I am sure there is one).
The famous Pilgrims are an example. Between about 1480, when European ships first appeared off the northeastern coast and 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived, Europeans made numerous attempts to establish permanent bases on the coast. Many were scared off by the presence of large, populous native settlements. As for those that tried—well, Indians repelled most of them and confined the others to small trading outposts. In about 1617 an epidemic—perhaps of viral hepatitis and certainly of European origin—swept the coast of New England, killing off the great majority of its inhabitants. Greatly weakened, the local Wampanoag reversed their previous stance and allowed the Pilgrims to move in.
Disease probably played its greatest role in the destruction of the Triple Alliance (aka the “Aztec Empire”) in central Mexico. Using a technique the Spaniards had discovered in the Caribbean, Cortés seized Motecuhzoma, the leader of the Mexica (the most important of the three groups in the alliance). This shocked the Mexica pretty much the way that Cromwell’s seizure of the English king Charles did a century later in Britain. It took them a few months to get over it, but when the Mexica did they killed two-thirds of the Spaniards and most of their horses and threw them out of the city. The Mexica kicked Cortés’s ass, to be blunt about it.
Wounded almost each and every one, the Europeans were on the point of utter destruction when by a stroke of fortune smallpox came in with some Spanish ships that ended up providing reinforcements to Cortés. A single sick person, an African slave, may actually have brought in the disease—some old documents make this claim. Whatever the exact mechanism of transmission, the disease tore through the countryside. Seeing that Cortés and his men were immune (they had been exposed during childhood), the Tlaxcalans—the people of a large state that had been fighting off the Triple Alliance for decades—made common cause with Cortés. When he returned to the attack, it was at the head of an army tens of thousands strong, and he was attacking an enemy whose military and political leadership had been killed off, almost to a man, by the disease. Fighting courageously, the enemies of the Triple Alliance won this second encounter, but the only reason it occurred at all was smallpox.
Now multiply these two stories by a hundred or a thousand and you get some idea of the enormous consequences wreaked by European diseases when they came to the Americas. Smallpox alone seems to kill about 40% of unvaccinated populations. If four out of every ten Americans died today, the society would shatter. You simply couldn’t keep things going—too many people would have died, and with them their accumulated knowledge. The unimaginable loss would provoke a huge spiritual crisis. All of this happened to native societies, and it left them terribly vulnerable.
The same was true of European societies, incidentally. The Black Death convulsed the continent, killing about one-third of the population. If Genghis Khan had attacked right after the Black Death, the historian Alfred W. Crosby has noted, the Pilgrims would not have spoken a European language.
ICT: Your book is notable for the fact that it is not a polemic; you present scientific consensus on an issue, and acknowledge areas of controversy. How would you characterize the overall situation: are we at a paradigm shift in the scientific approach to history?
CM: I would put it this way. The evidence has built up so much that it is no longer possible to ignore, even if one wanted to. Little of it is definitive, but all the arrows seem to be pointing in the same direction, at least to me. And for whatever reason non-Indians seem disposed to hear it. Many of them, anyway.
ICT: Your book is also not "romantic"; the Indians are not always "right." For example, you present evidence of indigenous ecological sustainability on a grand scale, but point out that there were also ecological disasters. Do you think it is important to know that the Indigenous Peoples were not flawless, but were humans who could make mistakes?
CM: Yes. Indians are human beings. Put baldly like that, it seems like a really stupid, obvious thing to say. And I bet your readership has never had any doubt on this score! But too much of the history I’ve read has failed to take this to heart. Indians seem constantly to be presented as plaster saints or plaster sinners. One is a nicer stereotype than the other, but both deny that native peoples participate in the full range of human behavior, good and bad.
A subtler version of this is what I (rather unfairly) call in the book “Holmberg’s Mistake,” after an anthropologist who described one group of very poor, hunting-and-gathering South American Indians as a timeless remnant of the Stone Age when they were in fact a persecuted people who had been driven into the forest by brutal ranchers. Indians are constantly presented as timeless essences, people who have never changed in thousands of years. But that is to say that they have no history—the only people on Earth who don’t change their surroundings or interact with others. And they only enter history when Europeans come into the picture. In social-science jargon, Indians are depicted as lacking agency. Agency includes both doing the right thing and going off in a direction you later wish you hadn’t. You could sum up my approach as trying to write a history in which I made sure the Indians had agency.
ICT: How have your lecture and book tour audiences been responding to your work: receptiveness to changed thinking or resistance to accepting the new scientific data?
CM: People have been incredibly kind to me—I feel very lucky. The great majority has been very open to these ideas. Certainly a few academics have harrumphed and taken some potshots, but I figure that goes with the territory. On a personal level, I’ve been most gratified by the large number of high-school teachers who have told me they want to include the material in my book in what they present to students. And a fair number of native people have buttonholed me and said nice things, which of course has tickled me no end.
ICT: Thank you, and best wishes.