Columbus may not have actually discovered the Americas, but his voyage changed their landscape forever — and divided history in such a way that the history of the two continents prior to his arrival is only currently being introduced into popular history.
At a talk today at Williams College journalist Charles C. Mann will focus on “The Pristine Myth,” a term referring to the idea that Christopher Columbus landed on an untouched wilderness that begged for European management of it and the people living there.
In Mann’s book “1491,” he argues that not only was the New World “not untouched” but it was heavily touched by the native populace. However, he says, the impacts of their stewardship of the land is still felt today, and their methods are worth investigation to correct ecological missteps pulled from the European tradition.
“You had a whole lot of people here — millions and millions of people — on separate paths of development, and it seems to me implausible that all these people over all these years would not have come up with anything that was worth our paying attention to,” he said during a recent interview.
Mann’s research concluded that the Americas were far more densely populated than we now believe, with diverse societies and inhabitants that were more sophisticated in sustainable land management than their European conquerors. Mann also uncovered advances in math and science made by the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans that were equitable to advances in Europe and Asia — a revelation that speaks to the idea that what passed for primitivism to the European eye was entirely skin deep.
Mann cites 150 years of anthropology and archaeology that have released a tidal wave of knowledge about the pre-Columbian world, but he also credits an unusual source — the conquerors themselves.
“The immediate conquerors wrote pretty interesting history,” Mann said. “If you go to the original Spanish sources and the original Colonial sources — English, French, Spanish, whatever — you’ll find all kinds of stuff that dropped out of our history books, and so it’s really a surprise.
“Sixteenth-century Spaniards knew how to count and knew what they were seeing to a large extent, and they wrote about it. They described the capital of the Aztec empire as the largest and finest that they had ever seen — a whole bunch of them describe it that way. At some point you have to give careful to the idea that it may have actually been the largest and finest city they had ever seen.”
The core of what Mann realized was that different societies measure progress in ways that reflect the world they come from. As the Europeans marched toward dominance — and Native Americans dwindled with European-imported disease that destroyed 90 percent of the population — the stewardship ended, and the ecological balance of the continent took a turn for the worst. It was in the 19th century, when the native population was at a low ebb, that generations had forgotten the original state of the continents and began to attach the current perspective of the tribes onto the historical one.
“Native populations were particularly waned because of disease — they were the bad guys — and by 1870, there were only 250,000 Indians left,” Mann said. “People looked around and saw these populations that were really on the run, and they would come up to these gigantic earthworks in the Midwest or the Southeast, and they’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t believe these people did that. How could they do that?’ So they just simply discounted this as exaggerations, and they were forgotten.”
Mann points out that most societies have their strengths, and success is all relative to the viewer’s vantage point in the world. Every society, he says, has something it is particularly good at — for instance, the European skill at gears and pumps and other machinery.
“Quite naturally we tend to look at those things and say, ‘That’s technology, and people who are advanced in that are advanced in technology,’” Mann said. “Native societies over here were particularly clever about agriculture and agronomy and ecology and things like that. I’m sure that they looked at Europe with its recurrent famines and said, ‘What’s with these people? Can’t they feed themselves?’”
That’s the point of diversity — it leads to the opportunity to pick and choose different strengths for use in your own society. According to Mann, that’s exactly what the native populations did.
“They had metallurgy and, particularly down south, were quite sophisticated, but it was very, very different from European metallurgy,” he said. “They extremely quickly adapted and adopted European metallurgy so that by the time of King Philip’s War, Indians in New England had a thriving gun-making industry and were full blacksmiths. If they pick up our technology, there’s no reason for us not to return the favor.”
Mann has found that one of the major reasons all this information has not become more a part of our popular history is the traditional separation of academic disciplines — historians don’t talk to archaeologists and anthropologists and vice versa.
“Bits and pieces of this story get locked up in different academic silos, and one of the great things about being a journalist is that you can pick up the phone and call anybody,” he said. “I was really surprised — I was seeing this again and again — how much a person of one discipline would go, ‘Wow, I had no idea’ about something that’s really commonplace in another discipline.”
Mann also believes that the way textbooks are produced in our country hinder the steady flow of new scholarship into the standard education. Expensive to produce and requiring board approval from some states, the process is costly and time-consuming for publishers who have to walk a tightrope in order to make their money back. This is not conducive to updates merely for the sake of knowledge.
“You have to thread the needle — just liberal enough to appease New York but just conservative enough to go through Texas, and just whatever to go through California,” Mann said. “The last thing you want to do after you’ve done this is to revise your textbook heavily so that you have to go through the process again. There’s this real bias to changing the textbooks.”
Also obstructive to spread of Native American information into the mainstream are the opposing viewpoints that politicize history.
“On the right, there are some people who, if you say that the Maya invented zero before anybody else did, that means you’re somehow saying that Isaac Newton wasn’t smart,” Mann said. “I really don’t buy this — I don’t even quite understand the argument. It just means that lots of people were smart — I don’t think that’s bad.”
Critics on the left sometimes find Mann’s dissection of the Indian’s stewardship of nature — which included intentional forest fires to control growth, animal population and other factors — to be contrary to the idea of noble, spiritual people in harmony with nature. Mann believes native populations were exacting and scientific in their relationship with the land.
“On the left, some people say that if you say that native people did all this very interesting stuff to reshape their environments, somehow you’re saying that it’s OK to pave the Amazon. I don’t think that at all,” he said. “It does mean that these landscapes have a history of being altered, and that’s something that we should take into account when we do public policy.”
Mann feels this attitude not only disarms the achievements of these societies but also obstructs opportunities to apply techniques for land management that would help us with very real modern problems, such as California wildfires. He charges that our public policies are based on data that takes into account the state of the landscape once Native American populations were dying off and unable to continue their work maintaining it.
“The people in this hemisphere have a pretty impressive record of manipulating nature in a way that was subtle and persistent and resilient, that did radically change to their environment while leaving essential ecosystems, services and functions intact — increasing biodiversity rather than decreasing it — and all kinds of interesting things that they did,” Mann said. “Many societies were just way more sophisticated about ecological matters than Western societies. To say that they were in harmony with nature reduces something that’s much more interesting to a simple slogan.”
Recently, Mann reworked “1491” for a children’s edition. His next project is a book about the land itself and the Columbian Exchange — the massive exchange of biology that occurred. The idea is to include geography in the big historical mix that he began in “1491.” Mann describes it as a “prequel” that begins with the geological fact on Pangea — the one continent that split up because of plate tectonics.
“What it means is that the plants and animals over here and the plants and animals over there are completely separated for millions of years, and the result is that we end up with completely different fleets of plants and animals here than over there,” Mann said.
“If you are a biologist, Columbus was important because that is when the previously separate paths of the world came into sustained contact. The result was this ecological explosion which had a huge impact because all the organisms over there came over here — and those over here went over there — and it underlies a whole lot of the human history that we learn about in textbooks.”