The Wilderness That Wasn’t?

Book Review: 1491, by Charles C. Mann

Here’s what I and pretty much every American child absorbed in school about the New World before the arrival of Europeans. The Americas consisted almost entirely of pristine wilderness populated by a sprinkling of Indians. The Indians left the wilderness undisturbed, and given their limited numbers were able to live off its natural abundance.

A few more complex civilizations existed in bits of Mexico and the Andes, but these were too backward to resist the white men.


In 1491, Charles C. Mann turns this understanding on its head. Mann is a journalist specializing in science reporting, and in this book he summarizes fifty years of research from many fields that together paint a very different picture of the New World in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

First, Mann argues persuasively that the Western Hemisphere was probably just as populous as the Eastern. However, contact with Europeans brought about a population collapse. Some were lost to deliberate violence, but the overwhelming majority of deaths were caused by infectious diseases, which usually arrived before the Europeans themselves.

For example, the coast of Massachusetts was thickly settled with agricultural villages in the 16th Century. It was depopulated, though, by a devastating epidemic, probably hepatitis A. Whole villages were abandoned, and Plymouth Colony was founded on the remains of one such village named Patuxet. When the Pilgrims arrived, they found a land of dense forests. According to Mann, though, many of these were second growth forests that grew on deserted Indian farmland.

Second, the peoples of the New World – from Amazonia to the forests of the Northeast – actively shaped their environment. Irrigation, drained wetlands, raised farm plots, and terraced hillsides were common in Mesoamerica and the Andes, but also in more surprising places.

In grasslands and forests, indigenous people used fire as a tool of hunting and land management. The eastern woods of North America were more open and less wild in the 16th Century than they were in the 18th, after the steep decline of the Indian population. In places the forests were more like orchards, full of useful trees deliberately planted.  The prairies were maintained and extended, in effect as vast game parks. New World peoples were very active in bending nature to their purposes.

Charles C. Mann


Sometimes their means were what we would today call “sustainable”, other times very much the opposite. An example of the latter can be seen in the collapse of Cahokia, once a large (for the time) urban center near present-day St. Louis.

Finally, in Mann’s account the indigenous civilizations were far more advanced than they are generally given credit for. Their technologies were more different than they were inferior. In Mann’s telling, the Spanish conquest of the Inca and Aztec empires had more to do with political instability (caused in part by new diseases) and less  with  advanced European technology.

However, 1491 is by no means an argument for the moral superiority of the New World peoples. They made war, oppressed their neighbors, and committed some grisly atrocities – just like Europeans. But Mann does argue that the destruction of the indigenous civilizations was, in cultural terms, an enormous loss to the entire world.

(Incidentally, Mann has a lengthy appendix on the subject of names. So many of the names we use for the New World peoples are wildly wrong – starting with “Indian” –  but he sometimes uses them anyway so as to be easily understood.)

Mann’s book has sparked enormous controversy since it was first published in 2005, in part because the experts are still arguing over the evidence. One part of the debate of special interest to gardeners has to do with our concept of “natural”.


There are those who argue that all landscapes are man made, so you cannot argue that any one type of landscape is more natural than any other. These persons see 1491 as evidence in support of their viewpoint, though I think Mann is saying something very different. Even so, some proponents of aggressive development have seized on this idea, to the dismay of environmentalists.

To me this line of argument is mistaken. “Naturalness” is a continuum, and the degree and kind of human intervention makes an enormous difference. A parking lot is not the same as a meadow, even though both are shaped by human actions. A forest or prairie may be influenced by human actions, but that doesn’t mean that they are human creations.

On the other hand, it seems that we may have to accept the idea that a pristine wilderness lies many centuries further back in history than we would like to imagine, in the New World just as in the Old.

I should add that this is a brilliantly written book, provocative and compelling. Mann guides you through the past and present, introduces you to key researchers, and provides entertaining color commentary on scientific debates. It was a book that left me wanting to know much more about a great many topics having to do with the environmental and human history of the Americas.


56 Comments on “The Wilderness That Wasn’t?”

  1. thanks for that Jason, I saw a tv programme recently that suggested that very early Homo sapiens that we think of as hunter gatherers (therefore not changing their environment) actually encouraged certain types of grasses to grow by burning etc. to attract animals they wanted to hunt so I agree that there is very little truly ‘natural’ wilderness anywhere in the world.

  2. Great post Jason. Similarly in Australia more recognition is only now being given to indigenous practices which shaped and served to manage the land over thousands of years. Sadly these methods – such as cultivation through burning and fish trapping – were swept away in the relatively short period of white settlement and so we have not really come to a shared understanding of the complex nature of the land we are living on.

  3. Sounds like a great book, and it does raise good questions about how we use “natural.” We often use it to imply “better” or even “morally superior.” Does that make sense to a gardener in the United States? Do you consider a garden better if it appears more natural?

    • I guess my answer to your second question is a qualified yes. I guess by more natural I would mean having a mix of grasses and flowering plants, allowing plants to set seed at some point, including at least half plants native to the region, and allowing plants to assume their normal habit, more or less. Also: no pesticides. However, there are so many ways in which my preferred type of garden is really not natural. The operative word is “more”. As I said in the post, “natural” is a continuum, and a garden is fundamentally a human creation. In my garden, for example, the ratio of flowers to grasses is much higher than it would be in nature. Also, I engage in lots of staking and cutting back. I don’t do periodic burns of the prairie plants, etc.

      I don’t believe that all gardens should be “more” natural, just as I don’t think all paintings should be from a single school of art. However, I do think there is a moral imperative to minimize the use of pesticides, and also to keep the garden pollinator-friendly. However, this can be done in the context of a more formal garden as well as in one that is naturalistic.

  4. I’m looking forward to reading this book. When we lived in Georgia, we visited the Etowah Mounds, remnants of the Mississippian culture that thrived before the Europeans came. Etowah was fascinating, really sparked my imagination, and made me aware of how ignorant I am about these cultures.

  5. Thanks Jason, I’m going to run this book down. I’ve always been fascinated by how the reality of N America’s past differs from what I grew up thinking. I don’t think altered by man is completely bad but like you say there’s a world of difference between burning a grassland and building a freeway.

  6. A very thought-provoking post that nonetheless makes a lot of sense. Why wouldn’t the indigenous peoples shape the landscape? After all, that’s what people of most cultures do. Your observation that there is shaping—a parking lot—-and then shaping—a meadow—is spot on.

  7. This sounds like a fascinating book, and does make you think about what we mean by “pristine wilderness”. Really, all organisms modify the landscape to some degree. We see that when invasive species move into some area (the spread of garlic mustard, which we fight every spring here, comes to mind!). Certainly humans do it in a more conscious way, but I would bet the landscape hasn’t been “pristine” since homo sapiens came on the scene 🙂

    • I think that’s a central point of the book. And without human intervention, invasives would take over. So is it more natural to try to beat back the invasives. or let nature take its course? (I’m in favor of battling the invasives, however you define it.)

  8. Interesting post, Jason. I think many of us North Americans grew up thinking (and being taught) the history that you describe. A few years ago I did some research about the Abenaki Indians who were the first people to live on the land where I live now, east of Montreal. They were primarily migratory but had summer and winter camps that stayed in a particular location only for a period of time before moving to a similar location. One reason they moved was because they had depleted the resources of the area; moving to another spot allowed those resources to regenerate. But they also encouraged useful trees to grow near their camps so they didn’t have to go too far to get whatever the trees produced. There’s no doubt, these inhabitants shaped the land.

    I think Jim Strickler raises an interesting point. So often when we use ‘natural’ it does imply “better” or even “morally superior,” as he suggests. I believe we are on the cusp on change, though, thanks to books like Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post Wild World. Strickler asks whether North Americans “consider a garden better if it appears more natural.” I think this is question of fashion, and that changes over time.

    A stimulating post. Thank you.

    • I need to read that Rainer/West book. I do prefer what most would consider “naturalistic” gardens but I recognize that they are really natural only to a very limited extent. I think the appeal of naturalistic gardens will wax and wane and also take different forms. Which is absolutely fine.

    • In the case of the New England coast, there was contact with European ships before the Pilgrims came. This contact resulted in disease transmission, which spread inland from the coast. With the Incas, disease was introduced to the Caribbean and Mexico, which spread to the Andes through trade among the indigenous peoples.

  9. I’ve read that book too, and found it interesting. Another good book with lots of info not taught in school is A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz, about the exploration of the Americas between 1492 and Jamestown.

  10. I was vaguely aware of this book, but I’ve now added it to my “for later” shelf at the library. I think part of moving away from the “man vs. nature” idea is understanding that humans have always interacted with and managed their environments. I’ve read a couple of natural histories of Maine that note that the forests the first Europeans found were not untamed wilderness but managed through controlled burning that removed the understory plants and created open park-like forests that were better for hunting.

  11. Thanks for highlighting this book, Jason.

    I read it several years ago and it struck me as one of the best books I’d read in a long time.

    What has stuck with me is the way that Mann weaves in historical accounts of Native American settlements by very early explorers who talked about large civilizations with many thousands – perhaps millions – of people. When settlers arrived a hundred or two hundred years later, those civilizations had collapsed and the people had vanished (mostly from disease as you point out).

    The stories we are told in school (of all stripes) are probably vast oversimplifications almost all of the time.

    Rather than reading the book as giving us carte blanche to rearrange landscapes to suit our whims (often with catastrophic effects on ecosystems), I hope that 1491 would give us a bit more humility and a bit less hubris.

    As 1491 illustrates, civilizations may be more fragile and ephemeral than we think.

  12. This looks like a fascinating book — thank you for telling us about it. In November I went to a conservation landscaping conference here in Maryland, and one of the speakers, a meadow expert based in Pennsylvania, told us about a book called Tending the Wild: Have you read that one? It’s a similar subject but specifically focused on California. He described a Native American being brought back to one of the park areas (I think Yosemite) after it had been under preservation status for a while. When asked what he thought of the landscape, the guy said it looked “messy” because it was not being cared for! I found this so interesting. Haven’t read it yet, but your post inspired me to order both these books. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is also a beautiful book that touches on this subject, among others.

  13. Seriously one of the best books I ever read. One thing I took away from it was advanced the system of agriculture was. Sustainable. That many many years later the soil remain fertile — unlike our own. And that the amazon forest is really the remnant of the greatest garden ever. We have so very much to learn.

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