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.
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.