by Charles C. Mann
Charles C. Mann’s 1491 explores the history of the Americas as it has been revealed over the last several decades of excavating, deciphering languages, and analyzing at the molecular level. Starting by correcting the vastly underestimated pre-Columbian population figures, Mann then shifts focus to the next logical question—what were all those millions of people up to before small pox and Columbus arrived? The last section of the book discusses the ancient ecology of the Americas and how its collapse inevitably followed the destruction of Indian societies.
Each chapter is full of boots-on-the-ground research efforts, the high drama of the academic world, and myth debunking evidence. Mann’s level of detail is complete with appendices on topics such as loaded words and the technical details of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. Throughout the book, Mann equivocates about politically charged disagreements regarding native communities, and more importantly, insists on something long denied the American indigenous—the dignity of agency in their own history.
1491 is an important read to help us all understand why the Americas was not, in reality, a “New World” simply because it was new to Europeans in the 15th century. It made me question the efforts of environmentalists to return land to a pristine, wild state of the past rather than acknowledging an entire continent of diverse ecosystems once highly managed and integrated with native communities. This book is proof of the monumental gaps in our understanding of the world and should be enjoyed by people the world over.
“Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. The fears come from the mistaken identification of wildness with the forest itself. Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors.”