Charles C. Mann


“In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great's expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West African tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude – as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo. The empire encompassed every imaginable type of terrain, from the rainforest of upper Amazonia to the deserts of the Peruvian coast and the twenty-thousand-foot peaks of the Andes between. 'If imperial potential is judged in terms of environmental adaptability,' wrote the Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, 'the Inka were the most impressive empire builders of their day.'”

The text above is taken from 1491, a work of history, science, and archaeology by Charles C. Mann that radically alters popular understanding of the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Contrary to what most of us learn in school, it seems that the pre-Columbian Indians were not inhabitants of a sparsely-settled pristine wilderness; instead, huge numbers of them actively influenced and molded the land around them. Consider the following:

“Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. Would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which in turn were ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of red-and-white plastered wood homes with high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront; traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the eighteenth century.”

Covering topics ranging from landrace maize to the early smallpox epidemics in the New World, from the need for counting and writing to slash-and-burn agriculture, Mann's book brings to the reader a completely new way of looking at the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. I include here one last passage for your consideration:

“....But the new picture doesn't automatically legitimate burning down the forest. Instead it suggests that for a long time clever people who knew tricks that we have yet to learn used big chunks of Amazonia nondestructively. Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they created it. They were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything.”

Whatever your views of that shadowy individual who 'sailed the ocean blue in 1492', Mann's work will give you a great deal to ponder. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.