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Recommended Reading for Dietas 2. ‘1491: the Americas before Colombus’

September 13, 2013

book 1491In my last post I wrote about the trilogy of books ‘Memory of Fire’ by Eduardo Galeano that I recently read on my thirty day dieta. In this post, I write about the fourth book I read on the dieta related to the history of the Americas called ‘1491: The Americas before Columbus’ by Charles C. Mann, published in 2005. This book has justifiably been well praised.

Charles Mann sets out to describe North, Central and South America before the arrival of Columbus in 1491. His basic thesis is that we have been taught an erroneous history of the continent, which persists today, and ignores the substantial new findings over the last twenty year in archeology, anthropology and historical studies, supported by other disciplines such as genetics, climatology, demography, soil science, and molecular biology .

In the book, he gives the reader a well-written and entertaining account of these studies. These studies indicate that in contrast to the convenient myth which has been perpetrated that Columbus and other early explorers arrived in a land that was almost pure wilderness and scarcely populated – which therefore meant it could be expropriated – there were already and previously existing large, complex, well-populated societies with rich traditions and cultures.

For example, the city of Tenochtitlan (the former name of Mexico City) was larger when Hernán Cortés arrived than any European city. The Spaniards were astounded at its size, location and construction. It was built on mostly artificial islands in the center of a mountain lake, linked to the shore by four long causeways.


Equally, it has been estimated, though this remains controversial in academic circles, that, in 1491, the Central Mexican plateau had a population of 25.2 million and was, at the time, the most heavily populated region of the planet, with more than twice as many people per square mile than China or India.

Dobyns, an anthropologist turned historical demographer, argued that the pre-Columbus population of the Americas was between 90 and 112 million people. Previous estimates had been between 1 and 8.4 million inhabitants. As Mann says (p.94): “Another way of saying this is that when Columbus sailed more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.”

Through carefully going through the recent studies – and examining the considerable controversy they have provoked within the academic world, the environmental movement and the indigenous activist movement – Mann demonstrates that our conception of the continent has been skewed. As a child growing up in England in the late fifties and sixties, I can now recognize the implicit racism and promotion of the superiority of white culture that was being promulgated by the traditional teaching about the history of the Americas.

Secotan Indians’ dance in North Carolina, watercolor by John White, 1585

One of the passages I like best in the book is when Mann is describing the arrival of the first English colonists in New England. He shows how the English newcomers entered a complex web of alliances and feuds between the different native people of that region, and how one particular tripartite alliance of indigenous federations was aiming to use the English against their enemies. In a startling reversal of normal imagery, he says (p.44):

“Time and time again Europeans described the People of the First Light as strikingly healthy specimens. Eating an incredibly nutritious diet, working hard but not broken by toil, the people of New England were taller and more robust than those who wanted to move in……….Because famine and epidemic disease had been rare in the Dawnland, its inhabitants had none of the pox scars or rickety limbs common on the other side of the Atlantic.”

And on (p. 46) that:

“Europeans, Indians told other Indians, were physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly and just plain smelly. (The British and French, many of whom had not taken a bath in their entire lives, were amazed by the Indian interest in personal cleanliness.)”

Throughout ‘1491′, the familiar patterns of conquest and forced subservience indicated in Galeano’s Memory of Fire’ are present. Additionally, Mann introduces a factor that he claims is indispensable in understanding how small groups of conquistadores  – Cortés in Mexico only had 600 men (400 soldiers and 200 Indian porters), six cannon and 15 horses and Pizarro in Peru only 168 men and 62 horses – were able to subjugate the vast empires of the Aztecs (more correctly called the Triple Alliance) and the Incas respectively – smallpox.

Mann argues that it was the introduction of European diseases that devastated Indian populations and cultures, making them vulnerable to conquest, and, moreover, which created the impression of a sparsely populated country. Dobyns estimates that European diseases, such as first smallpox (which arrived before the Spaniards) then later typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles, killed nine out of ten people in the Inca empire.

In another striking passage in the book, when Mann refers to what he calls ‘Holmberg’s Mistake’ – the influential attribution in 1950 by an anthropologist of a primitive state of existence to a group of 150 Sirionó Indians in the Beni region of Eastern Bolivia (which then became the established view of many so-called ‘primitive’ peoples)  – he says (p.9) :

“The wandering people Holmberg travelled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the paleolithic age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they had always been barefoot and starving.”

Mann’s argument, too, is that these complex pre-Columbian societies throughout the Americas actively managed their natural environments. He uses the examples of the Plains Indians who were constantly setting fire to vast areas of their habitat, thus making it more amenable for human habitation and agriculture, whilst also at the same time encouraging ecological regeneration.

Orellana route

Route of Francisco de Orellana

Likewise, in the Amazon, there is increasing evidence that what the Spanish adventurer Francisco de Orellana (wonderfully portrayed by Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s film ‘Aguirre Wrath of God’ loosely based on this expedition) saw, and his scribe Gaspar de Carvajal, a member of the Dominican Order, recorded, when they journeyed the length of the Amazon in 1541, was not made up, as has generally been thought. It seems that heavily populated villages did exist along considerable lengths of the Amazon basin. These populations were supported by the sophisticated agricultural practices of terra preta  – the creation of rich, fertile soil through mixing charcoal and ceramic shards. Amazonian topsoil, without this admixture, is usually of notoriously poor quality and easily washed away despite supporting such extraordinary biodiversity.

In this way, continues Mann, we have to correct the myth of the Americas in 1491 and beforehand as a pristine wilderness. He points out that the environmental movement which, following Thoreau, has wanted to promote the idea of nature in its pure, wild state and conserve it that way, has found these studies disturbing, because they see that it can provide a pathway and rationale for further development of the last untouched places on the planet, such as areas of the Amazon.

I think, however, that the key point is what kind of development is being promoted. It is increasingly clear – though you would not think so listening to most politicians – that the traditional, large-scale, extractive model of development is morally bankrupt and ecologically destructive, even if it is still alive and kicking.


Helicopters at Pucallpa airport

As I write this, seated on my hotel balcony in Pucallpa in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon,  helicopters are flying overhead as oil companies move in to explore for oil in traditional Shipibo territories in the Ucayali and Loreto regions.

These communities, up until now, have mercifully escaped exploration and production with the notable exception of two Shipibo communities near Contamana (between Pucallpa and Iquitos on the river Ucayali) where the effects of 40 years of oil company activity have been disastrous – these communities no longer have fresh drinking water nor easy access to fishing due to oil pollution and the people suffer a wide variety of medical problems which have been unequivocally linked to exposure to crude oil.

What is needed as an alternative to the traditional neo-liberal model of development are other forms of development, such as permaculture, which are based on working with nature and the possibility that in a partnership between humans and nature, both can be enriched, rather than nature being just a resource to be appropriated for human needs, and in the case of many corporations, human greed.

‘1491’ is an important book because it shows us that historically many pre-Columbian societies were able to exist based on this kind of cooperative relationship with nature – and where they exceeded or ruined the ability of the surrounding eco-systems to sustain them, they have disappeared – as Jared Diamond argued about the collapse of societies like the Mayas, the Greenland Norse, and Easter Island amongst others. Many people see this as a warning for what as a species we are now doing to the whole planet.

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