1491: A Book Review
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
In fourteen hundred and ninety-one, half the world didn’t even see us coming.
In two thousand and twenty-one, half of us didn’t see the other half coming.
Yeah. I see relevancies there.
In 1491 , Charles C. Mann gathers as much of the latest research into the pre-Columbian Americas as he can lay his hands on. In doing so, he shows us the Atlantic Coastal lands inhabited by thriving villages with long-settled systems of governing. There are mound cultures in the Midwest, river cultures in the Pacific Northwest, farming cultures in the southwest, and nomadic cultures on the high plains. There are empires through the corridor between north and south, and one of the greatest of all in the highlands along the western edge of what would become known as South America. Even in Amazonia, there are traces of raised agricultural plots large enough to support the village that created it.
Mann reveals two continents inhabited by peoples who controlled their environments, encouraging the growth of nut trees and assuring that there was always enough land to support game. He traces a history of the cultivation of maize, wherein Native American farmers select for healthier plants with larger kernels. By the time the earliest Europeans had penetrated the interior of the two continents, however, it was all too easy to assume that the natives of these lands had accomplished little.
Toward the end of this wealth of nations someone came ashore carrying the smallpox bacillus. Mann writes,
The human and social costs are beyond measure. Such overwhelming traumas tear at the bonds that hold cultures together. The epidemic that struck Athens in 430 BC, Thucydides reported, enveloped the city in “a great degree of lawlessness.” The people became contemptuous of everything, both sacred and profane. They joined ecstatic cults and allowed sick refugees to desecrate the great temples where they died untended. A thousand years later the Black Death shook Europe to its foundations.
Another plague has come ashore in the year past, a plague that is taking lives, shutting down businesses and closing cultural institutions. We can’t afford to assume that our lives, the lives we live on the land that was overtaken 530 years ago, will go on as usual. What will happen to the millions of children who have missed too much school. Missed out on the one institution that would enable them to live in the world with each other. Living in a world in which they cannot connect with other human beings at risk of sickness and death.
The people became contemptuous of everything, both sacred and profane. They joined ecstatic cults and allowed sick refugees to desecrate the great temples where they died untended.
Mann shows us a world that is, like ours, flawed but ever seeking a better way to live. A way to live well upon their land. And then struck, not only by the greed of men who ventured beyond the civilizing force of home, but also by an invisible enemy that laid them waste and against which they could not raise a finger.
Be it smallpox, cholera, or Covid-19, we also stand in our own 1491 and cannot imagine the changes that are waiting to spring upon us. The native inhabitants of the American continents tried so very hard to hold it together against implacable forces, but were splintered in spite of themselves. The great schism of our time reminds me of Columbus rowing ashore on foreign soil and that one carrier of smallpox who ventured into the eastern forest lands. At first either one seems like an isolated incident. And then the disease spreads like wildfire as do the rapacious invaders who have no use for anything but the promise of wealth and power. It took the natives too long to recognize the danger. Is 2021 the threshold for the next calamitous invasions? Or do we have the tools this time to wrestle the disease to the ground and welcome the barbarians back to the fold?
The natives might have taken us in, should we have allowed it.