Wednesday, March 02, 2011

1491

Birth, death, war, and desperation in the new hemisphere.


  • Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
  • Author: Charles C. Mann
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Length: 465pp (hardcover)
  • ISBN-10: 1400032059
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400032051
  • At Amazon.
  • Charles C. Mann web site.
  • Review by Tim Leffel.
  • Charles C. Mann articles.
1491 is a prime number.

Not mathematically, but historically.

Life on any day of that year was like a day on the beach just before a tsunami. The next year, 1492, initiated a frenzy of death.

If others have told this story before, better, more thoroughly, more rigorously, and in a more entertaining way, fine.

But I don't think so.

I like this book. I didn't know how ignorant I was. Now I do. It's good to learn.

The life of Europe officially hit the West in 1492, and hit hard. I know the unbelievable stories of the random handful of freebooters and psychopaths who brought down empires with their few bands of drunken miscreants, a horse or two, and firearms.

But they didn't. Diseases preceded all of them. European diseases. Which killed as much as 95% of the inhabitants.

Disease swept all the western hemisphere before most of it had even heard of the strange beings who reeked of filth and were so hairy they were mistaken for animals. Those who became the new masters of two continents.

"The earth's population in the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. ... Disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by the first third of the seventeenth century. ... The epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. ... It was 'the greatest destruction of lives in human history.'"

And what came before?

"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 Africa 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."

What?

"Not the least surprising feature of this economic system was that it functioned without money. True, the lack of currency did not surprise the Spanish invaders -- much of Europe did without money until the eighteenth century. But the Inka did not even have markets. Economists would predict that this nonmarket economy -- vertical socialism, it has been called -- should produce gross inefficiencies. These surely occurred, but the errors were of surplus, not want. The Spanish invaders were stunned to find warehouses overflowing with untouched cloth and supplies. But to the Inka...it was all part of the plan. Most important, Tawantinsusy 'managed to eradicate hunger,' the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa noted. Though no fan of the Inka, he conceded that 'only a very small number of empires throughout the whole world have succeeded in achieving this feat.'"

The story presented in this book is thin on North America west of the Mississippi River. Europeans simply got there too late. Very much too late. The die off had hit around two centuries earlier. The author also does not have much to say about southern Central America. Since I am still deeply ignorant of most things I don't know the answer to that.

But much of what Europeans did find existed because of the tens of millions who had created it. The sweeping, rich, open, hardwood forests of the east, the Great Plains, and many other aspects of the continent didn't just happen. They weren't the results of natural processes.

I have hiked wilderness, and lived in it for weeks, but wilderness is a false notion. There never was such a thing. Lands in North America were deliberately burned on an annual schedule. Species were selectively hunted and thinned. The land was made useful, but in ways that even today the Old World mind still hasn't realized.

If you want to know what North America was like you can read that part of the book. Or if you want to know about western South America. Or the Olmec, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Toltec of northern Central America.

You can read about Tenochtitlán, capital of the Mexica: "Tenochtitlán dazzled its invaders -- it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlán to the mainland...Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens -- none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate." A miracle to those who had grown up wading ankle-deep in Europes' sewer-like streets.

You can read about all that, but I want to mention something else.

I saw Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God". That was enough. Enough of the Amazon.

It was as close as I ever wanted to get to the Amazon Basin. Loosely based on Gaspar de Carvajal's insane journey of despair and betrayal, the movie "Aguirre" made me relish the clean, hard-frozen winters of the northern Plains. Ice and wind yearly sweep the land clean of mold, mildew, slime, slithering things, and all creatures with sucking parts.

I have no desire to spend my last few days, in the Amazon, covered in a blanket of mindless crawling things with twitching feelers, multiple legs and ever-clicking mandibles. While the sky is dark with poisoned arrows.

Or I didn't used to. (And am still arrow-shy.)

The Amazon, aside from Antarctica, which is a hopeless and blank desert of emptiness and ice, must be the original wilderness, you think. A leafy urschleim.

You have to think that. The Amazon may only be, can only be, must only be the original land in its most basic state where humans were never meant to be. It is a place which, once entered, can never be left again, except by passing through a digestive system. You think.

So let's talk about that.

The oldest pottery in the Western Hemisphere dates from around 6000 B.C. It was found in the Amazon Basin. "By about four thousand years ago the Indians of the lower Amazon were growing crops -- at least 138 of them." And most were trees. Maybe 80% of them were trees.

Yeeps?

"The Amazon's first inhabitants laboriously cleared small plots...but...they planted selected tree crops along with the manioc...'Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees,' Clement said. 'That's because people planted them. They're walking through old orchards.'"

Again: Yeeps?

Peach palms, for example, which yield an extremely oily fruit rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and protein. Its pulp can be made into tortilla-like cakes. Fermented, it becomes beer. Its wood is hard enough to make saws from. Per acre, these trees are more productive than rice, beans, or even that miracle crop of the world, maize.

"People domesticated the species thousands of years ago and then spread it rapidly, first through Amazonia and then up into the Caribbean and Central America."

"The 'Stone Age tribespeople in the Amazon wilderness' that captured so many European imaginations were in large part a European creation and a historical novelty; they survived because the 'wilderness' was largely composed of their ancestors' orchards."

But the most surprising story of all, one that is only beginning to be understood, is radical terraforming.

Literally.

The ancient peoples of the Amazon created earth. Not the planet, but the earth they farmed. They created it. They invented the process for making it. And it is possibly the most valuable farming technology ever. Clark Erickson, a University of Pennsylvania archeologist, has said that "the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet".

Impenetrable wasteland? No.

"Amazonian Indians literally created the ground beneath their feet." Called terra preta do Índio, it might cover as much as 10% of the Amazon Basin, an area the size of France. Over centuries of intensive farming, amid all the tropical rainfall and flooding, the soils steadily improved. In some places, old plots like this are dug up and directly sold as potting soil.

The secret, discovered so long ago now, is charcoal. One of the secrets.

Organic matter sticks to charcoal. Excrement, offal, plant waste, and anything else that might contribute to the soil was dumped on it. And millions of pieces of pottery, some appearing to have been produced solely so it could be smashed and scattered across the fields, holding the soil in place, aerating it, and shielding it from the hammering tropical downpours.

"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."

This is a good read.

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