1491 will let you see the New World that we're just starting to discover

10/09/2009 6:13 pm EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Happy Europeans discover the New World even though none of the people who lived there then knew that they needed finding Day.

I don’t mean to disparage Columbus. As a history such as Hugh Thomas’ Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan (2005) makes clear, the man was an amazing sailor. Getting across the Atlantic in 1492 was no mean feat.

Ever since that “discovery” first European and then U.S. culture has struggled to see what Columbus found. The early European explorers wanted to believe that the peoples who lived in the lands that Columbus discovered were savages and cannibals. Those categories made it easy to see the native peoples as either subjects to be ruled or enemies to be exterminated.

We haven’t gotten a whole lot better at seeing in the last four hundred plus years. In school I was taught U.S. history in a way that made native societies background for the important actions that formed The Story of the American People. In college and after I learned how to see these native peoples as victims and to mourn their passing.

It hasn’t really been easy to understand the full inadequacies of those ways of seeing until the last few decades. It turns out that we didn’t know very much about these people and their societies and their achievements. That’s been gradually changing as scientists have chipped away at our profound ignorance about the world in this hemisphere before Columbus.

If you want to get caught up on the best of that science, in a story told with real passion for what we’re learning, then devote a bit of this Columbus Day weekend to starting 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

I dare you to read this book and not be moved, outraged, intrigued, and amazed by what we are now beginning to know that we didn’t know for so long.

What kinds of things?

Mann makes an extremely convincing case that the invention of corn by the “primitive” people of the Americas is the single greatest technological achievement in human history. Corn wasn’t simply an existing wild plant that had to be domesticated. Every candidate for the plants that were the father and mother of corn is a grass-like plant with a tiny head of grain that bears more resemblance to modern wheat than to today’s corn. Primitive people, way before Gregor Mendel laid out the laws of inheritance that form the basis of modern genetics in the nineteenth century, carefully selected plants with larger and more stable heads of grain, bread them with plants with similar traits and over centuries created the plant that has now conquered the world.

And even then, their job wasn’t done, Mann points out. Because North and South America are laid out north-to-south these primitives had to carefully modify new generations of corn so that the plants that had their origin in today’s Mexico (We currently believe) could thrive in the cooler and shorter growing regions of North and South America. Corn, scientists now estimate, didn’t reach what is now the U.S. Midwest and Northeast until nearly 1000 CE. (Or AD if you went to school as long ago as I did.)

Contrast that, Mann points out, with the much easier task that plant breeders in the Mediterranean basin faced because that region stretches east/west. The environment faced by plants in Turkey was not that different from the environment in Sicily or Spain.

In reading Mann’s chapter on the Amazon I had to stop repeatedly and shake my head, as if I needed to physically dislodge old ideas. The Europeans who first explored that region talked of it as Paradise created by God or nature where every fruit and nut grew to hand in incredible profusion.

Well, we’re now beginning to understand that God and nature had very little to do with it. This Paradise was a created landscape. The people who lived in the forests of the Amazon had planted these fruits and nuts so they would be available to them to eat. In effect the forest was one giant grocery, carefully organized so that fruits and nuts would ripen in an order that made harvesting easy and guaranteed a steady supply of food.

Re-seeing the Amazon that way is probably even more of a shock to us now than it would have been to sixteenth and seventeenth century explorers. We’ve turned the Amazonian rain forest into a totem of unspoiled wilderness, something profoundly alien to human-made cultures.

Except that it turns out that this is an environment profoundly shaped by human being. Even down to the soil itself.

Scientists have discovered, Mann reports, that “primitive” people responded to the well-known infertility of the soils of the Amazonian forest by creating their own. Aerial surveys have shown huge and widely scattered patches of man-made soil in the rain forest. No one has been able to duplicate the formula for these soils but scientists are trying as hard as they can because 1) they are incredibly fertile even centuries after they were created, and 2) they contain a high proportion of charcoal that might make these soils invaluable as a global carbon sink in our current efforts to fight global climate change.

Don’t get too smug if you live in the temperate forest zones of North America. Turns out that these lands were transformed by human gardeners not once but twice. The first transformation turned the forest into a patchwork of fruit and nut orchards interspersed with hunting grounds for deer. The second transformation, one that was driven by the arrival of corn after the year 1000, moved the orchards and segregated the deer so that they wouldn’t destroy the newly introduced corn crop.

I can think of only a few other books about the native cultures of the Americas that have the same power to change the way we see the past and the landscape that we still inhabit. There’s The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire by Francis Jennings (1990) that tells the story of the very subtle Iroquois strategy of great power politics in eighteenth century North America. There’s The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon Portillo (1962, revised 2007) that uses Aztec sources to tell the story of the Spanish conquest. The chance to discover the beautiful laments of Nahuatl poetry (the language of the Aztecs still has more than 2 million speakers) is worth the price of admission.

I’d put 1491 in that very select company.

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