By Charles Mann

Western civilization has long had a tendency to define itself in terms of what it has written. Civilization begins with the development of a system of writing, for how else can any society advance beyond the most primitive state without a standardized system of communication and record-keeping? History, in turn, is what has been written down. A people without a written language are pre-historical.

This bias was expressed by the anthropologist Allen R. Holmberg, who lived among the Siriono, a South American Indian tribe, in the 1940s. Despite being a careful and compassionate researcher, he was also a man of his day. He concluded that the Siriono were not only “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world,” but that they had always been that way. And, since history is imagined as a narrative, as change (for better or for worse), “they were people without history.”

This is what Charles C. Mann describes as “Holmberg’s Mistake”: the notion, which has held sway in the West for almost five centuries, that Native Americans before Columbus lived in an eternal, unhistoried state, either as vicious barbarians or noble savages. 1491 is a historical travelogue, examining some of the ways Holmberg’s Mistake is being corrected. Mann doesn’t have all the answers, or even a whole lot of “new revelations,” but instead focuses on areas the liveliest current debates over the nature of pre-Columbian America.

That there are such debates, and that they can sometimes be so bitter, is partly because of the absence of a written history, partly because of the nature of the inquiry (where did maize come from? why didn’t the Maya find a use for the wheel?), and partly because of the politics involved. But through the use of new techniques like DNA analysis and carbon-14 dating, possible answers to some of the trickier questions are emerging, and new understandings of early American civilizations are coming into view.

What led Holmberg, and others like him, to make the mistake of assuming native Americans were without history was the effect of the Great Dying – the massive demographic drop brought about by the introduction of European diseases like smallpox into populations without any resistance to them. The American civilizations that early European explorers encountered were mere shadows, the Indians they met only the survivors of shattered cultures.

The Great Dying is just one of the current bones of contention 1491 addresses. Just how many died? There are High Counters and Low Counters, revisionists and re-revisionists, all speculating on very little data. Some have put the population of the entire hemisphere at less than 10 million, while others argue that anywhere from 80 to 100 million (95% of the total population) died at the beginning of the seventeenth century. As with most of the arguments in this book, there is a political issue at stake. Were the Americas essentially unoccupied when the European arrived? What sort of blame attaches to the disease-carriers? Was this genocide?

The same political considerations inform debates over who were the “first” Americans, how advanced early American civilizations really were, and the relationship native peoples had with the environment. In the last case the myth of Indians living in a perfectly balanced, natural relationship to an environment they did nothing to shape (a variant on the idea of the ahistorical and changeless native known as the “pristine myth”) is challenged by evidence that tribes may have been slashing and burning the Amazon rain forest hundreds of years before the Europeans came. They lived in an “artificial wilderness.” Of course this doesn’t make them into precursors of today’s Brazilian beef farmers, but one can see how even here the battle lines are drawn.

Carr has no particular case to argue or axe to grind, and he does a good job of presenting the range of evidence for the various debates surveyed here. This is important, because despite all of the new techniques being employed by scientists to discover more about the early history of the Americas it is clear that other considerations, including those of a political and even personal nature, also shape and direct the progress of our understanding. The past is an artificial wilderness too.

Review first published November 2, 2005.


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