by Charles C. Mann
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s almost 29 years since I sat in my first anthropology lecture. It was NUI, Maynooth (or, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, as it was called then), 1990 and, like many of my fellow classmates, I was in thrall to Professor Eileen Kane, the glamorous Irish-American head of the Department of Anthropology, who embodied everything I imagined anthropology would be. Growing up on a diet of John Ford films, saving up my pocket money to pay my annual subscription to National Geographic, and the environmental movement’s late 1980s co-option of Native American culture and iconography, had turned this 17-year old into a sponge for all things Native American. During my first year at university both Dances with Wolves and Black Robe were released in Ireland and I was probably personally responsible for the box-office success of both.
From those diverse sources I learned about distinct groups of people – the Sauk and Fox, the Sioux, the Yanomami, the Cree – as unchanging bounded cultural entities, ‘the people without history’, as Eric Wolf described them in his epic anthropological history of post-1400 European expansion. As my path through anthropology progressed, my understanding grew more sophisticated, but some elements of those original tropes remained – Native Americans at one with nature, small population sizes, minimal environmental footprint.
But there are two things we have to remember when exploring the histories and cultures of non-white, non-western Europeans. First, academic disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology and paleo-history are very young. Second, they were all born out of a belief in the superiority of white, male Europeans. Therefore, for most of the 20th Century history of those disciplines, what we think we know is based on limited evidence and on certain ethnocentric and, specifically, Euro-centric assumptions.
Charles C. Mann’s expansive book, 1491, sets about addressing both of these issues, in the context of the Western Hemisphere. In rich and evocative detail, he repaints what we thought we knew about the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. He makes compelling arguments for pre-European continents that were, in places, heavily populated, with environments profoundly transformed by, and in the service of, humans.
He makes what now seems like the rather obvious point that the early accounts of indigenous Americans were written by European travelers, explorers, missionaries, and so on, about peoples whose populations had been decimated by European diseases and about environments that were no longer managed because of that depopulation. The resulting environmental, social and cultural assumptions have repercussions down to the present day.
As archaeological research unearths more and more information about the peoples of the Americas prior to 1492 and, as the meanings of now dead languages are deciphered through the traces of the unique forms of writing left behind, multiple interwoven pictures are emerging of complex societies, of human-managed environmental transformation, of environmental and social triumph and disaster.
There is little in what Mann writes in 1491 that I didn’t already know in at least a vague and nebulous way. But then, I have a doctorate in anthropology based on years of fieldwork conducted in northern North America. Most of the stories he tells were familiar to me, but some turned what I thought I knew completely on its head.
What Mann achieves, beautifully and evocatively, is to bring together evidence from disparate disciplines, geographical regions and historical eras, to tell the multiple and overlapping histories of the Americas before European colonization of the hemisphere. I was engrossed from the first page, moved and angered by the paths of destruction carved out by Europeans, and equally angered by the diminution of indigenous American cultures and histories to John Ford characters or the wisdom of some ‘chief’ on an environmental poster.
The social, cultural and environmental loss can never be measured. The loss of human life is imaginable. One can only guess at the imaginative, creative, political and economic paths the world might have taken if more than 90% of the human population of the entire Western Hemisphere had not been wiped out. Charles C. Mann’s book helps the reader to meditate on such questions and I soundly recommend it to everyone.