Things I learned from 1491
Monday, September 28, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
Okay, I'm a grad student, not a tenure-track EnvHist professor. So maybe it's easier for me to admit this. I learned stuff from Charles C. Mann's 1491.
Yep, in spite of doing a PhD teaching field in Global Environmental History. In spite of teaching American EnvHist several times. Mann covered things in 1491 I had not heard of, and other things I had heard of but hadn't dug deeply enough into. So I'm going through the book again with a fine-tooth comb, looking for things I ought to add to my course, study up on, or read his sources. And while I'm doing that, I'm going to try to pay careful attention to the organization of the book, the language, how Mann presents his material. All the things that, along with choosing interesting material in the first place, made the book a national bestseller.
First thing I noticed, as I reopened this book, was that Mann says he has been thinking about these topics for over two decades. It shows. In addition to 385 pages of text, my paperback edition includes over 150 pages of appendices, endnotes, bibliography, and index. In comparison, Down to Earth has 295 pages of text, 71 pages of back matter. McNeill's An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World has 362 pages of text and about 50 pages of back matter, although its footnotes are at the bottoms of pages. More important, there's a lot of overlap between Mann's sources for his popular history and the academics' citations in their textbooks. And actually, there's material in Mann's story and sources that I haven't seen before -- possibly because it comes from outside the silo of academic History.
When I talk about American EnvHist, I like to start about 80 thousand years ago, when the Homo sapiens who were our ancestors left Africa. So I loved the whole premise of Mann's book: that there was a lot going on in the Americas before Columbus's arrival and we should know about it. I immediately related to Mann's introductory attack on the Pristine Myth, and I appreciated the way he added urgency and suspense by contrasting the revisionists and the people (like Holmberg) whose work they were revising. Even so, I was unaware of William Denevan's discoveries in the Beni region of Bolivia, or of the efforts of people like Denevan and Henry Dobyns, who have been arguing these points since the 1960s. I'm still going to talk about Alfred Crosby in my class -- but I'm going to start mentioning these geographers too!
And yes, there's something to be learned about language and tone. I don't think any academic would have named a chapter "Holmberg's Mistake" or observed that "it was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving" (10). People have criticized Mann for dwelling too much on conflicts -- or even of trying to create them where they didn't really exist. But there are social and political consequences to the question of how many people were in the Americas before Europeans and what their lives were like. I often wonder if the critics of "confrontation" wouldn't prefer to go back to a time when we just didn't have to worry about these issues.
Another of the very effective elements of 1491 is that Mann has traveled to a lot of the places he describes and met a lot of the people whose work he cites. The personal observations Mann makes, the hardships, and even the trivial incidents of travel bring us into the story. Suddenly we're reading a narrative of discovery rather than a historiography. But my exercise today is combing through the book for material to add to my course. So what specifically am I going to add, that I hadn't covered before reading 1491?
The Beni region, because I think it's interesting and compelling that things are still being discovered.
"Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine [in 1501]. Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings" (47). I'm going to try to put more stress on the idea that Whites and Indians interacted in a wider variety of ways. Especially in New England in the century before the 1616-17 epidemic and the beginning of English colonization.
The depopulation of the territory first explored by Hernando De Soto in 1539 and revisited in 1682 by La Salle, who found the land "deserted--the French didn't see an Indian village for two hundred miles" (108).
The section on challenges to Clovis chronology is excellent, but I'm already covering that. And since the book came out, there have been genetic discoveries that fill out the story of Kennewick Man (and "Hoyo Negro Girl") which I'm already planning to add.
Aspero and Caral, in the Norte Chico. If Aspero is actually in the running for the world's oldest city, this is probably worth mentioning (201-9).
I might assign the passage (212-24) on Maize. It includes a description of how many varieties are still eaten in Mexico, and introduces the concept of landraces, which would be useful because the idea comes up again later in the semester.
I might also assign Chapter 9, "Amazonia," (315-49). It introduces the idea that the Amazon region may have been much more heavily populated in the past, discusses agro-forestry, and covers another controversy. This one is interesting, because part of the argument seems to be over present use of the Amazon. Opponents of the idea that a lot of people have been able to support themselves in the region claim that accepting that conclusion would open the doors to further deforestation and development. Despite the fact that the evidence suggests the people who thrived there in the past did so by tending the trees! So obviously, this could lead to an interesting discussion in a class.
Finally, Mann's suggestion that the die-off of most of the Americas' Indians caused other animal populations to boom is probably worth mentioning. Especially since (like many people, I imagine) I already mention the extinction of the passenger pigeon and quote American authors' descriptions of the flocks that took days to pass by. Another opportunity to talk about dynamic systems being more accurate descriptions of the world than steady states.