25 January 2008

Pristine Wilderness?

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Lots of books on history are written by journalists these days. Most are well-written and more accessible to the general reader than the output of historians published by university presses. These journalists’s histories frequently reveal startling new ideas that have roamed the halls of academia for decades. They offer old news to professional historians. Such is the case with Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). The back cover offers a promise regarding the contents inside. My references are to paperbound Vintage edition (2006), which contains an additional Afterword not in the hardbound first edition.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. … Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand.
1491, paperbound back cover

Compare a statement from a scholarly article by William M. Deneven that is cited in 1491.

In the ensuing forty years, scholarship has shown that Indian populations in the Americas were substantial, that the forests had indeed been altered, that landscape change was commonplace. This message, however, seems not to have reached the public through texts, essays, or talks by both academics and popularizers who have a responsibility to know better.
Deneven, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Sept. 1992), 369.

The forty years Deneven refers to stems from his observations of the striking unity of perspective between John Bakeless, The Eyes of Discovery (1950) and Kirkpatrick Sale, Conquest of Paradise (1990). Mann mentions that the special issue of Annals of the Association of American Geographers in which Deneven’s article appeared was one of the volumes he depended upon (411), and acknowledges “some of the ‘new revelations’ chronicled in 1491 occurred fifty years ago” (379). Denevan's views also are at least partly in accord with those of Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: they share the view that Indians changed the land, although they might disagree on the numbers of Indians.

Mann's book is written well. The prose is smooth and the story carries it along. Although the text does not uncover new knowledge, it helps orchestrate and popularize ideas that more Americans should know.

It should come as no surprise that I've already cited Mann twice on technology and once on disease. Expect to see this text mentioned again.

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