Looking back on 1491 (the book)

This can be read as a late reaction to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann, a book that was originally published in 2005 (hc) and 2006 (pb) but which I have only just recently read.*

So this is not intended as a review so much as a brief set of thoughts regarding some of Mann’s principal themes, such as ecological history and anthropogenic landscapes. I am also interested in the different ways in which the book might be perceived by different audiences.

These issues function as markers of an important shift in anthropological approaches to the environment. As with most paradigm shifts, this one has been gradually taking shape, taking its inspiration from the interdisciplinary intersection between human geography, ecology, biology, archaeology and anthropology. It is not my intention to summarise Mann’s arguments here (some early reviews of the book which adequately sum up its main points can be found here and here).

This intersection can be traced back through a recent scholarly genealogy that coalesced around several common threads throughout the 1990s, and would include, among others, the (mostly collective) tomes by Crumley (1994), Soulé & Lease (1995), Krech (1999), Whitmore & Turner (2001), Gunderson and Holling (2002), Selin (2003), Balée & Erickson (2005), Walker & Salt (2006), and, more recently, the critical riposte to Jared Diamond by McAnany & Yoffee et al (2010).

The multistranded conversation and debates that have animated these and various other authors concentrates on viewing the environment as a dynamic, complex phenomenon that has consistently, and decisively, been influenced by human activity since at least 12,000 BP. Among other things,  these studies concentrate on the fact that the circumambient world is something far more complex than established (anthropological) approaches to the social construction, or representation, of space and place. Hence the inclusion of historical ecology as a key component of this analytical perspective.

Importantly, a great deal of interest within this ongoing discussion has concentrated on the so-called New World Tropics (or Neotropics). And that is where Mann’s synthesis of the anthropogenic history of continental American ecologies comes in.

My various reactions to Mann’s book can be synthesised thus:

On one hand, I found that it succeeds remarkably well in attempting to offer a useful overview of the state of historical ecology across the Amerindian world for a non-specialist readership. His tripartite thematic structure, emphasising Pre-Columbian demographics, social complexity and anthropogenic landscapes, hits the nail on the head. In this sense, I was pleased to discover that 1491 has been translated into Spanish and will soon be available to Iberoamerican readers. While many details of Mann’s presentation – and a few glaring omissions – can be argued over, the primary goal of turning mainstream (Anglo-American as much as Latin American) views of Amerindian history on its head is nicely resolved.

While many of Mann’s main points go over literature and materials with which I had previously had varying degrees of familiarity, I was especially interested in his descriptions of fire as a critical component of Pre-Columbian human transformations across the North American landscape. This is mostly because human-induced and controlled fire is a well rehearsed topic in relation to the historical (I mean LONG term historical) development of Meganesian ecologies, particularly in regard to the Aboriginal management of the extremely meagre environments of the Australian continent. However, the argument that fire also played a part in the human management of North American landscapes was not known to me, and is well addressed here.

Beyond specific materials and issues, reading 1491 prompted me to think about the different ways in which Pre-Columbian history has been popularised and assimilated in Anglo and Latin America. At one point in his narration, Mann is sensitive to these differences of perspective, which speaks to the attention with which he has observed and interacted with Latin American scholars and people throughout his travels and research.

More to the point, I find it interesting that while the book has mostly been received as an important tool for teaching future Anglo American students about the fascinating diversity and historical depth of the hundreds of Amerindian societies that inhabited the Americas before Columbus, I hope that once the Spanish edition finds its way to the broader Spanish-speaking public it will also help our various regional schools of archeological, anthropological and historical inquiry to begin to think beyond the usual nationalistic boundaries within which Indigenous American history has tended to be circumscribed. This is not just about extending current horizons beyond the rather stale navel-gazing that has characterised Mexican anthropological and archaeological research for the past few decades. It is also about motivating local scholars to think about the value of comparative analysis, especially when coupled with serious attempts at ecological history.

Speaking for myself, I have already been able to draw on the extremely rich bibliography that Mann offers in order to pursue useful comparisons across a number of topics which are familiar from Melanesian and Pacific contexts. These include:

  1. fire in the human management of landscapes,
  2. the relativisation of the otherwise unproductive dichotomy between nomadic (hence small scale and simple) and sedentary (large scale and complex) societies. Mann accomplishes this not only through an enticing description of the fluid nature of 15th century Algonkian communities, but also through his focus on the exchange systems that allowed the coastal inhabitants of Peru’s Norte Chico littoral (5,000 BP) to build up sophisticated urban structures on the basis of fishing and cotton production, that is to say, in the absence of the agricultural and political frameworks that have normally been seen as indispensable to the rise of early city-states, and,
  3. the extremely important discussion regarding the possibility that it was the recent (post-contact) introduction of steel axes that radically transformed shifting cultivation (“slash-and-burn” agriculture, arboriculture and horticulture), turning it into the predominant method of food production for tropical forest societies**

To sum up, I found Mann’s overview to be stimulating and meticulous, if a bit clunky at times, in terms of structure and narrative. Perhaps my only remaining comment is that, in preparing this post, I have found surprisingly few scholarly comments or reviews of 1491. Perhaps my institutional search engine is filtering stuff, perhaps I simply arrived late to the academic reactions to this book. But considering that it continues to appear in many a prominent bookstore, I would have expected it to have generated much more interest, even if we specialists could turn to it and say “well, yeah, I already knew that…sort of”. But hopefully this is just a result of my insufficient searching. Whatever the case may be, I am looking forward to further discussion and reaction of some of these themes as the book makes its way across continents, languages and readerships.

*The “lateness” of my comment is in respect of the book’s original publication date, and is mostly due to the fact that I normally avoid airport kiosk-type bestsellers like the plague, and when it originally hit the stands this book had every appearance of being just that. I was, however, pleasantly proven wrong in this case, as I recently realised when I took it with me as travel fodder.

**Cfr. Carneiro, R.L. (1979), “Tree Felling with the Stone Axe: An Experiment Carried Out Among the Yanomamö Indians of Southern Venezuela”, in L.E. Sponsel, ed., Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,  46-52; Denevan, W.M. (1992), “Stone vs. Metal Axes: The Ambiguity of Shifting Cultivation in Prehistoric Amazonia”, Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society, 20: 153-165.

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