From the first moment of contact, Europeans viewed the American Indians through various mythic lenses. The most famous of these, applied indiscriminately to the vast variety of peoples inhabiting the Americas, was the Golden Age, which imagined a time before history when humans lived in harmony with a kind nature, without cities, technology, laws, property, and all the misery and strife these create. Indians were viewed not as complex human beings, but as projections of the white man's longings, or noble-savage reproaches to the white man's civilization. In either case, writes Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, they lacked "agency"; they were never "actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way."
Five hundred years later, little has changed. Too many interests are served by such myths. Popular culture has found in Indianism a lucrative commodity, as in Walt Disney's Pocahontas or Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. And critics of American society, whether identity-politics tribunes or anti-capitalist leftists, have found in what Mark Twain called an "extinct tribe that never existed" a powerful weapon for attacking the perceived crimes and dysfunctions of modern America—from ravaging the environment to fetishizing private property. What is lost, of course, is the historical truth of the Indian and his conflicted, quirky humanity.
Mann for the most part successfully recovers that truth, giving us a portrait of New World Indians that restores their agency and humanity, and thus rescues them from their pathetic status as the victims of a marauding, uniquely evil European civilization. Mann writes about science for the Atlantic Monthly, and his book is typical of most science books addressed to non-scientists. The discussions and explanations of scientific controversies are interlarded with personal anecdotes about the author, scholars, researchers, and various other people he meets on his research journeys. But despite these chatty distractions, he manages to discuss pretty clearly and fairly three key controversial ideas about the conditions of pre-contact American Indian life, even if his conclusions are not always convincing.
The first concerns the population of the Americas when the Europeans first arrived. How many Indians were alive before they encountered the strange and deadly diseases the Europeans brought with them? This is a highly charged political issue for those who see Columbus and his successors as genocidal racists. Mann takes his readers through the decades of research and the arguments for and against the higher and lower estimates, as well as the politicized issue of assigning blame for the deaths and characterizing them as "genocide." In the 1920s, estimates put the population of the entire hemisphere at 40 or 50 million; 20 years later, the guess was a fifth that number. He tells us that today the "High Counters" are winning the debate, but he doesn't provide a number. He does endorse Henry Dobyns's estimate of 90-112 million, but nothing in his discussion makes this estimate convincing. Part of the problem, he writes, is to figure out where all these people went, given how few Indians were left by the 17th century; in central Mexico, for example, there were fewer than a million.
One solution is to posit astronomical mortality rates, such as 95%, for the diseases the Indians caught from Europeans. But such mortality rates from disease are very unusual. The Black Death killed a third of its victims, the 1918 flu epidemic 5%. These low mortality rates make evolutionary sense, since a disease that kills almost all its victims dooms itself. One explanation for these estimated high rates is a genetic vulnerability that afflicted New World Indians and left them uniquely vulnerable to disease—a lack of variety in the human leukocyte antigens, which help the body fight off various pathogens. But this explanation, while promising, is still speculative. Given the margins of error that compromise pre-contact population estimates, and the questionable reliability of sources contemporary with the Indians, we still can't say with much certainty what the Indian population was at the time of European contact.
The second issue Mann discusses is the evidence that pre-contact Indian societies were "older, grander, and more complex" than the primitive hunters and gatherers of earlier descriptions. Support for this view comes from recent research that pushes the Indians' presence in the New World to 20,000 or even 30,000 years before the present instead of 14,000 or 15,000. This added time allows for more generations of people, supporting the population estimates of the "High Counters," and also provides extra time for developing more sophisticated civilizations. Mann surveys the recent archaeological discoveries of irrigation works, textile production, writing systems, calendars, roads, pottery, the domestication of cotton and maize (the latter something of a miracle, given how little the Indians had to work with), and even in the Peruvian Andes a "great wall" made of stone and stretching for 40 miles. All these remains testify to a level of civilization far beyond the old picture, painted by Indian idealizer and demonizer alike, of Indians as primitive hunters and gatherers indistinguishable from their natural environments.
On the contrary, pre-contact Indians were builders of many more urban centers and complex societies than just those created by the Mexica (Aztecs) and Inca. In North America, for example, the Cahokia chiefdom near modern St. Louis was the greatest city north of the Río Grande between 950 and 1250 A.D., with a population of 15,000. Its huge mounds are still visible today, the largest 900 feet long, 650 feet wide, and 20 tall. Fronting it was a plaza 1,000 feet long. As Mann observes, "[a] thousand years ago it was the only place for a thousand miles in which one could be completely enveloped in an artificial landscape."
* * *
But the sophistication of Indian cultures, in addition to their greater numbers, creates a problem for the third controversial notion—and one of the most cherished myths of Indian idealizers—that they were natural ecologists, harmonizing with the natural world, and "living lightly on the land." When many millions of people create cities and domesticate plants and animals, they necessarily affect their environment much more extensively than would hunters and gatherers or rude farmers. Mann surveys the evidence and finds that, like humans everywhere, Indians shaped and transformed their surroundings in various ways: "At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush."
The most important tool used by Indians to shape their environment was fire. It cleared space for farming, drove herds during hunts, promoted useful plant and animal species, and even served as entertainment: Rocky Mountain tribes entertained Lewis and Clark "by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles." The Great Plains is mostly an artifact of Indian burning, and the presence of bison in the East was due to the Indians, who burned off forests and thus created a landscape more suitable for bison. Even the vast Amazonian rainforest, "[f]ar from being the timeless, million-year-old wilderness portrayed on calendars," is in fact "the product of a historical interaction between the environment and human beings." As much as an eighth of the Amazon forest was created by humans who nurtured plants like the peach palm, bacuri, and açai. They even invented dirt: terra preta, a nutrient-rich soil produced by mixing charcoal and organic refuse with earth, helped their orchards grow.
Indeed, some of the icons of America's supposedly pristine wilderness were in fact the consequence of the Europeans' presence, which disrupted the resource management techniques the Indians had developed over the centuries. The endless flocks of passenger pigeons celebrated and mourned by John Muir and James Fenimore Cooper were the result of fewer Indians. So too with the bison herds, which flourished in the ecological space once occupied by Indians whose number had been diminished by disease. So too with the "forest primeval" admired by American Romantics. All were part of the new environment that came into being after Indian numbers plummeted and the landscape they had crafted and tended over the centuries began to alter. As Mann concludes, "Far from destroying pristine wilderness...Europeans bloodily created it."
The Indians were superb "resource managers," then, rather than the mystic nature-lovers of popular culture and multiculturalist curricula. Yet some Indian societies occasionally overtaxed their environment and hastened their own demise. The Cahokia over-hunted animals, over-cleared forests and vegetation to plant maize, and diverted a river to supply water. These interventions led to erosion and cataclysmic flooding that destroyed the maize crops, a disaster repeated in other river-valleys where brush and trees were cleared to plant maize. This environmental degradation probably contributed to the Cahokia's abandonment of their territory. So too with the Maya in Central America, who also overtaxed and outgrew their environment's capacity to support their numbers. Add war, economic competition, and drought, and the stresses were too great for the Maya to overcome—an object lesson, perhaps, for our own civilization: not about "rebuilding an environment from the past," as some sentimental naturalists have it, but about "shaping a world to live in for the future," Mann concludes.
* * *
Despite his good sense and willingness to discard pleasing myth in order to find the truth, the pull of sentimental Indianism is sometimes too hard to resist. Throughout his book, for example, Mann makes invidious comparisons with 15th-century Europe that echo the moralizing of the first explorers. Obviously, people living in simpler societies have advantages over those living in more complex ones, as the Romans recognized with their idealizations of the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. He also tries to palliate the savagery of some Indian societies with a tu quoque argument that usually ends up as mere special pleading. To imply that the Mexica's practice of sacrificing tens of thousands of victims by tearing out their hearts and consuming the remains was no different from the brutal methods of publicly executing criminals in Europe ignores the simple fact that no matter how unfair the trials by our standards, in Europe criminals were still executed only after they had been tried according to law. And the bodies weren't eaten.
Mann's worst offense in this regard comes in his concluding "Coda," in which he resurrects one of the oldest of Noble Savage Indian myths, that the Iroquois League provided the colonists with a model of "limited government and personal autonomy." This is historical nonsense. The Iroquois had no written laws, formal institutions and offices codified in law, notions of citizenship, transparent procedures for fair elections, or anything remotely resembling a "constitution." That the first Americans, knowledgeable of the 2,000-year-old tradition of classical republics and confederations referred to many times in The Federalist, should turn to what Benjamin Franklin called "ignorant savages" for inspiration, is incredible. Nor would early Americans, schooled in the traditions of ordered liberty stretching back to Runnymede and Thermopylae, need the example of Indians any more than the republican Romans needed the Germans to show them how to be politically free.
Mann's missteps result from the weakness of those who look to material causes rather than culture when explaining historical phenomena. For no matter how clever or sophisticated were the Indians of the New World, in one respect they were vastly inferior to their European conquerors: their cultures had few resources for adapting to new circumstances, whereas the story of Europeans in the Americas is one of constant adaptation and initiative, a reflection of the intellectual dynamism that characterizes the West.
Perhaps the material cause most frequently invoked to explain the Indians' retreat is disease. But disease alone, though it exacted a fearsome toll, does not explain the outcome in the New World. Even if as many as half the Inca were wiped out by disease, as Mann speculates, Pizarro still had fewer than 200 men, and was thus outnumbered by hundreds to one. Mann is to be congratulated for giving us a picture of the Indian that respects his complicated humanity, but he still has no answer for the fundamental question raised by the collision of the Old World and the New: why were the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán, and not the Aztecs in Seville?