2 Dec 2007, 9:25pm
Cultivated Landscapes Cultural Landscapes
by admin


Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. 2005. Alfred E. Knopf.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

1491 is one of the best and most important books of the New Paradigm. Mann reports on our new Age of Exploration, the reconstruction of an accurate picture of the past. The new, developing ideas and evidence regarding pre-Columbian America indicate that the Western Hemisphere was populated by millions of people living in civilizations older and more advanced than those of the invading Europeans.

1491 is about the cultural and cultivated landscapes of the Americas and the indigenous peoples who lived here for millennia, caring for those landscapes. Forests were part of those landscapes, too, and the residents had huge impact upon forests during the entire Holocene.

Mann has performed an stellar job of scholarship, journalism, and scientific synthesis, and in 1491 he presents the latest anthropological, paleontological, historical, and ecological findings regarding human life in North and South America before Columbus. The work of Dr. William M. Denevan, Professor Emeritus of Geography, Univ. Wisconsin, figures prominently, as does that of Carl Sauer, William Borah, William Doolittle, James Parsons, Thomas Whitmore, and many other leading geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and ecologists.

Mann’s writing style is clear, concise, and delightful. He is a master of the language.

Some excerpts:

Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the number of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry brambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oaks. …

Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. …

When Indian societies disintegrated from disease and mistreatment, forest invaded savanna … Europeans forgot what the landscape had looked like before and why. Captain John Palliser, traveling through the same lands as [Peter] Fidler six decades later [Fidler surveyed southern Alberta in 1792], lamented the Indians’ “disastrous habit of setting the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worse than useless reasons.” Afterward, even the memory of indigenous fire faded. By the twentieth century biologists were stoutly denying its existence. …

… Spurred in part by historians like [William] Cronan, most scientists have changed their minds about Indian fire. Using clever laboratory techniques, they have convinced themselves that in most cases the tribal lore and old chronicles were right all along: Indian embers were sparkling in the American night for centuries before the Sumerians climbed their ziggurats.

Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature–but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if “stable” is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash.

Mann found that North American forests were not the only ones impacted by the First People:

Planting their orchards for millennia, the first Amazonians slowly transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In the country inhabited by the Ka’apor, on the mainland southeast of Marajó, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In Ka’apor-managed forests, according to [William] Balée’s plant inventory, almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food. … Balée cautiously estimated, in a widely cited article published in 1989, that at least 11.8 percent, about an eighth, of the non-flooded Amazon forest was “anthropogenic”–directly or indirectly created by humans.

Some researchers today regard this figure as conservative. “I basically think it’s all human created,” [Charles R.] Clement told me. So does [Clark] Erickson, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who told me in Bolivia that the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet. … According to Peter Stahl, an anthropologist at the State University of New York in Binghamton, “lots” of researchers believe that “what the eco-imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval world] in fact has been managed by people for millennia.” The phrase “built environment,” Erickson argued, “applies to most, if not all, Neotropical landscapes.”

(Extra bonus points are awarded to Stahl and Mann for use of the word Urwelt).

From Quebrada to Mutal, from Amazonian terra preta to the maize fields of Mississippian Cahokia, from the Arawak to the Haudenosaunee, Charles Mann paints a masterpiece that pertains importantly today to our modern (yet heritage) forests and landscapes.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta