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The Hidden History of the Americas

Richard Peet teaches geography at Clark University in Massachusetts. His most recent books include Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO (Zed Press, 2003), written with seventeen student coauthors, and Liberation Ecologies, 2nd ed., edited with Michael Watts (Routledge, 2004).

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 480 pages, hardcover $30.00.

Countless, almost perfectly round, forested islands dot the remote, watery plain of the Beni in eastern Bolivia. A millennium ago the islands were linked by causeways, parts of an intricate landscape management system tended by thousands of highly organized workers. These mounds do not have their origins in geo-morphological forces, but originate instead in human logic, in anthro-morphology. For even simple excavation reveals that they are built from broken pottery. Each pile, and there are hundreds, is larger than Monte Testaccio, a hill of broken pots southeast of classical Rome, serving as a garbage dump for the imperial city. Simply extending from the volume of ceramics piled on the Beni suggests that the plain was home to a highly structured society. Beginning three thousand years ago, an Arawak-speaking people created a civilization that, at its height, was populated by a million people walking the causeways wearing “long cotton tunics, [with] heavy ornaments dangling from their waists and necks” (12). The Beni was one of humankind’s greatest works of landscape artistry. Yet it was unknown until recently even by its contemporary inhabitants, the Siriono. For the builders of the mounds and the caretakers of the dikes disappeared just before the Spanish invaders arrived. Its discovery awaited Bill Deneven, a geography graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who flew over the area in 1961 and was astonished to see great regularities in the landscape that could only be human in origin.

As Charles Mann patiently explains, in his epic book 1491, the Neolithic Revolution is conventionally understood as the invention of farming in the Middle East, some eleven thousand years ago. Farming then served as the productive base for the inventions of the wheel and metal tools, to which the Sumerians added writing, to create the world’s first great civilization five millennia ago. But the people of the Americas left Asia long before they could have known of the discoveries made at Sumer. They had to do it for themselves. There were three Neolithic revolutions, two of which happened in the Americas, one in Mesoamerica, and another, both prior and independent, in the Andes.

In the Mesoamerican civilization the Olmecs moved from the domestication of maize or, rather the creation of maize, for there are no wild species that resemble it, to the invention of writing, the tracking of planets, the creation of a 365-day calendar, and most astonishingly the invention of the concept of zero, in less time than the Sumerians took to make similar advances. At Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian-Bolivian border, at twelve thousand feet above sea level, the city of Tiwanaka was based on an intricate system of interregional exchange. By 1000 ad an architectural marvel of terraced pyramids, grand monuments, running water, and closed sewers had been constructed. It was occupied perhaps by 115,000 people, with another quarter-million in the surrounding countryside, numbers that Paris would not attain until five centuries later.

The Amazon River was more crowded then than it is now, with at least two cities of a hundred thousand or more along its banks. Jump far to the north and there, opposite contemporary St. Louis, was the city of Cahokia, atop a hundred-foot earthen mound covering fifteen acres, surrounded by maize fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The native Americans managed their environments for thousands of years in stable, supple, and resilient ways. In 1491, the Western hemisphere was, in Mann’s words, “a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture” where one-fifth of the world’s people lived. Most of this world was swept away by disease and subjugation in an erasure so thorough that, within a few generations, neither conqueror nor conquered knew that it had existed. Only now, after many a struggle in power-knowledge, is the history of ethnic and cultural loss painfully reconstructed.

It turns out that two kinds of erasure were involved. First, native Americans were, for genetic reasons, unusually susceptible to foreign microbes and viruses. It was not only that they lacked acquired immunity to smallpox and other European diseases. The small number of people that initially populated the Americas made for a genetic homogeneity that left their descendents remarkably free of some diseases (the Indians were the healthiest people on earth), yet terribly vulnerable to other diseases, carried along trade routes far in advance of actual, physical contact with the Europeans. (Even now, it is impossible to keep contagious diseases from spreading—avian flu, for instance.) From this perspective, the virtual elimination of the indigenous Americans was inevitable once intercontinental contact was made.

Secondly, the Spanish conquistadores treated the Indians cruelly, murderously, contemptuously—as though the indigenous people were not humans. Yet neither conqueror nor conquered had a secular understanding of disease. Sickness was seen as a manifestation of the will of God. They knew the results of infection, but not the causes. These causes were sometimes indirect. Mann explains that Spanish armies traveled “in a porcine cloud,” the pigs darting ahead in search of food, “breeding exuberantly,” and passing on diseases that constantly mutated between animals and people. The results were calamitous. After De Soto’s visit, the Caddoan people living on what is now the Texas-Arkansas border suffered losses of 96 percent. Central Mexico had a population of 25 million in 1518 and 0.7 million in 1623, in part due to “the plague,” and in part probably due to the post-Conquest collapse of Indian sanitation measures. In the case of the Inka, smallpox traveled ahead, along the roads of empire, so the Spanish encountered a society ravished by recurrent bouts of smallpox and a political elite quarreling over the remains. Where the Spanish encountered relatively intact societies, Indian resistance was strong despite the advantages of guns, horses, and steel. The Spanish failed to take Florida, the initial occupation by Portuguese sustained only two settlements in Brazil, the French could only maintain trading posts along the St. Lawrence River, and the Yucatan remained only partly subdued. Without the spread of disease, the post-contact history of the Americas would have been quite different.

Mann is at his best when he asks what was lost with the elimination of the Indian civilizations. Having developed apart from the European-Asian civilizations for millennia, the Americas were “a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all other products of the mind” (123). Few things, he says, are more sublime than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The mere discovery of the Americas caused intellectual ferment in Europe (though not, we might add, with the explorers—a more crass, careless, and greedy bunch is difficult to imagine). How much grander would have been the tumult were the Indian societies to have survived intact? The death of one-fifth of the world’s people and the subsequent disintegration of native America was a loss to humanity. Significant as these questions may be, there is one more issue that we might raise. Mann’s account is full of instances when tantalizing glimpses into the pre-Conquest past have been slighted, the original numbers of people questioned, the level of civilization denigrated, and the historical length of settlement (30,000 years or more) ridiculed. “America,” he says at one point, “was the Old World…Europe the New.” The conquerors of continents invent ornate excuses, myths to make life easier. But in the case of the Americas we have not so much the invention of mythology as a refusal of the collective mind even to think deep history, for what it would reveal, and what this might mean. This is a book that will be expertly nit-picked into only semi-acceptance. Yet it is a work that every American student should read as part of growing up. Its lesson is sorrow, and its moral is humility, qualities lost in the new age of American triumphalism.

2006, Volume 57, Issue 11 (April)
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