I’m way late to this party, because 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbuscame out in 2006 and was a best seller, so it’s probably not news to many of you that this is a fantastic book.
For those of you who haven’t read it, though, this is the type of book that you look up from every few minutes and say, “Listen to this!” or “Did you know…?”
1491 is a depiction of the Americas just before and just after contact with the Europeans. The gist of it is that the peoples of the Americas were much more populous and their civilizations more advanced than we are taught in our school books.
The first part of the book deals with horrific impact of imported European diseases on the native populations. I always knew it was very bad–but I never understood the extent of the devastation. In part this is because I never understood extent of the civilizations destroyed. This section is depressing, but it’s well worth understanding.
The rest of the book covers so much ground that I don’t even know what to focus on. Warring archeologists struggling to define the past. The complex and fascinating debate over when and how the first people came to the Americas. (Nope, the old land-bridge theory doesn’t hold water anymore.) Grisly tales of the Conquistadors coupled with intriguing records made by Spanish scribes that offer us precious insights into the strange and magnificent technologies and theologies of the Inka, Maya and Aztecs. The mystery of the development of corn and it’s impact on the world. The true history of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon–it’s not what you were taught. The wonders just pile up.
What I think back on most, though, is what is revealed through these stories about the relationship between nature and culture in pre-contact Americas. As with Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, which we’ve reviewed here before, a picture rises of very active human management of natural resources. All across the Americas there is compelling evidence of intense landscape management practices which in most cases (but not all) managed to provide for the needs of burgeoning human population without destroying the land. This is permaculture. The real deal.
There are so many lessons to be learned from these ignored histories. And what’s most interesting is that it seems we are only able to understand the skill and knowledge these lost people now, because we are only just becoming able to conceptualize more subtle relationships to nature. For instance, until we began to understand food forestry as a legitimate agricultural practice, we had no hope of recognizing an ancient Amazonian food forest when we saw one.
Lots to think about.
You can hear 1491 author Charles Mann deliver an interesting lecture, “Living in the Homogenocene: The First 500 Years” on the Long Now Foundation’s podcast.