Sunlit Water

December 1, 2007

Forward, Not Backward

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 9:37 pm

I finished 1491 today.  Overall it’s an excellent book, and I would readily recommend it to anyone and everyone.  It’s true that it lacks the carefully objective and cautious tone of most academic writing, especially on the controversial subjects it discusses, but this is really more a virtue than a shortcoming.  The things Mann is talking about are important, but the perspectives being taken in recent scholarship about them are not well-known to the general public, and one engaging, readable book about them is much better than a hundred dry articles in obscure journals.  As a journalist, Mann is not only a much better writer than all too many academics but also more inclined to privilege rhetorical effect over strict accuracy (though, to be fair, he is careful to indicate where he does this), both of which make it much easier for him to get his message across clearly.  And he does have a message; this book isn’t exactly a polemic, but it’s not a neutral report on a scholarly debate either.  Mann relates the opinions of both sides in various disputes with admirable fairness, but he is not shy about taking sides and putting forth his own conclusions.

His general message, which he expresses in the context of a few key issues of contention, is that the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere in 1491 were more populous, more in control of their environment, and more firmly established in their places of habitation than scholars had assumed until recently, and that the general consensus of specialists in these areas supports those conclusions.  Since all of these issues have potential political implications as well, Mann offers clear (though sometimes rather general) prescriptions for how to integrate these new findings into policy decisions.  This is particularly important when it comes to the idea that the landscapes of the American “wilderness” (including Amazonia) are really not wild at all, but the result of careful maintenance by humans over the course of centuries or millennia, followed by massive ecological changes when European diseases decimated native populations.  Rather than concluding that this means they aren’t worth saving because they’re not “natural” (which seems rather absurd, but is apparently what some environmentalists worry will be the result of this research), that we should study those maintenance techniques for clues to how to manage those landscapes in our own time.  On the other issues he discusses, demography and the length of human habitation in the New World, policy implications going forward are a bit murkier, but the evidence does support a more humane attitude toward the indigenous people who are around today than is unfortunately common in many circles.

I find all this very congenial ideologically, and in fact I think Mann hits just the right note in his presentation of the politics of all this.  The key is not to endlessly squabble about the past and try to establish levels of blame; those issues detract from the real challenge, which is what to do now given what we now know about what the past was like.  A key element, perhaps the key element, in my political worldview for some time now has been that our goal as Americans should be to make this country as pleasant a place to live for its indigenous inhabitants as it was in 1491.  As this book shows, we’re still a long way from that goal.

Notwithstanding my overall positive impression, there are some small issues I have with the book.  Mann relies a lot on archaeology, which is necessary given the subject matter but also leads him to adopt some of the peculiarities of that discipline, some of which are rather problematic.  One of the most important, as he even quotes one scholar saying at one point but doesn’t seem to take to heart, is the assumption that what has been discovered is the sum total of what existed at a given time.  No archaeologist would agree with that as stated, of course, but it’s implicit in the way many of them (and hence Mann) talk about “the biggest x in the world at time y” or “the earliest z in the world.”  Since it is of course true that the vast majority of the world has not been and will never be excavated, absolute statements like this are misguided; a bigger x or older z could turn up at any moment.  This is part of what I meant above about putting rhetoric above facts.  It’s not really a problem overall, but I found it a bit irritating at times.

Another problematic tic of archaeologists that Mann adopts is a weirdly naive attitude toward linguistics.  Although it’s quite clear from those areas with long written histories that material culture and language cannot be assumed to correspond simply, New World archaeologists still quite commonly try to assign cultural complexes to the speakers of specific (proto-)languages.  Related to this is the tendency to take glottochronology seriously, even with caveats about its underlying assumptions, when it’s long been pretty much entirely discredited within linguistics.  Mann is more careful about this than many popularizing authors, but he still makes some unwarranted assumptions without properly qualification at times.

In spite of these minor issues, this is a very good and very readable book on an important subject, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.



  1. What’s most helpful about a good book review, I find, is that it either confirms for me why I want to read the book, or distills the book efficiently enough that I am relieved of the nagging concern that I might want to read it. So, thanks. (This was the latter case — interesting, but not remotely my field.)

    Comment by Witt — December 3, 2007 @ 5:27 pm |Reply

  2. Well, I think maybe I will read it. So there!

    Comment by nakku — December 4, 2007 @ 3:58 am |Reply

  3. Efficient distillations for some, intriguing teasers for others!

    Comment by teofilo — December 4, 2007 @ 11:37 am |Reply

  4. Little American flags for everyone else!

    Comment by Stanley — December 4, 2007 @ 5:50 pm |Reply

  5. Imperialist!

    Comment by nakku — December 5, 2007 @ 1:38 am |Reply

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