1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008)
I cannot honestly claim to have read this book. I intended to read it. I have read parts of it and I have perused all of it. But it is far too detailed and complex to simply sit down and read for pleasure. It is my intention to read it carefully, probably in the fall, when the garden is put away, the snow is on the ground, there is a fire in the living room, and I have the time to dedicate to such a tour-de-force.
The major questions are simple enough, when did the first people arrive in the Americas, where did they come from, and how many were here before Columbus? The answers are not so simple, involving as they do evidence from archaeology, botany, genetics, linguistics, geology, medicine, chemistry, climatology, and other sciences, to say nothing of the historical records, such as they are.
More specifically, this book reviews the growing evidence against the claim that the Clovis peoples of the American Southwest were the first arrivals, coming across the Bering Strait during a specific time period when a land bridge existed, and also against the long-standing claim that all of these early arrivals were simple hunter/gatherers living in small groups and constituting a relatively small population.
Unless you read this fine book (or are a professional researcher up-to-date with all the developments) you cannot possibly understand the enormous complexity of these issues and the evidence pro and con. It is necessary, for example, to understand the importance of crops like cotton, beans, squash, potatoes, and most of all, maize, as well as the methods and techniques employed to grow these various crops. You will no doubt be amazed, as I was, to discover that slash-and-burn agriculture, long believed to be thousands of years old, probably was not even possible before the advent of stone tools, or that the invention of the milpa (type of planting) is one of the world’s greatest inventions.
With respect to population density the author visits all of the major large cultures, cities, and civilizations that have been more and more revealed in the archaeological record: the Inca and Maya, of course, but also the Toltec, Cahokia, Norte Chico, the Iroquois, other lesser known areas, and even the Amazon basin that, until recently, was regarded as very sparsely populated. In most of these cases the archaeological evidence cannot be questioned as the people left behind huge monuments and cities that are still being discovered and excavated. In cases like the Amazon, however, it is not so simple. It was assumed that the jungles did not support large populations and therefore there must have been few people there, but now the opinion is changing. This is partly based upon the writings of Gaspar de Carvajal who, for reasons I will not bother to explain, left the first written description of the Amazon. He reported large populations living in villages stretching over hundreds of kilometers. He was not taken seriously for a very long time because he also reported giant, bare-breasted Amazon women who captured men in order to mate with them. It is true that the soil in the Amazon was extremely poor and could not have sustained large populations, but there is now evidence that large areas were artificially built up for the purpose of growing crops, a development that perhaps makes de Carvajal’s account not quite so far-fetched.
Of course when it comes to this type of research it is always the interpretations that come to be questioned, and not only the interpretations themselves, but the means used to make them. With respect to populations, for example, some argue that shortly after the post-contact period a full 95% of the American population perished because of introduced diseases. There is no doubt that many perished but 95% may not be a reasonable assumption. You also must consider that early estimates of the populations tended to run to a million or so individuals, whereas now there are some who argue for almost hundreds of millions (these are the ones who believe in the 95% death rate). Still other people argue that the initial estimates were deliberately kept low to hide just how bad the Americas were violated by Europeans. Some claim there were more people in the Americas at the time of contact than there were in Europe, and some believe that “New World” cities were larger than Paris or London. Some claims are so apparently outrageous you might think the book should be titled “Archaeologists Gone Wild.” And some of the interpretations are so at odds with others they result in personal animosities and feuds.
There are, even now, no answers to the three questions. We still do not know with any certainty where the earliest Americans came from, how long ago they arrived, or how many there were at the time of contact. We seem to be creeping slowly along towards answers that may in fact never be completely possible. At this point it is probably safe to say the earliest settlers did not all come across the Bering Strait, did not all come at once, they arrived before the Clovis people, and there were many, many more than previously believed.
This book provides such a wealth of information, so much detail, so many questions and controversies it requires serious study. It is clearly the most definitive survey of the available evidence and is deserving of a great deal of time and effort. Study its slowly and enjoy.