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1491 and All That

  An astute reader finally did come up with exactly the book about pre-European Discovery America I had noticed somewhere and forgotten title and author of :  it was "Paradise Found:  America at the Time of the Discovery" by Steve Nicholls (thanks to Robert Brown.)

Meanwhile very many readers thought I must be looking for "1491" the best seller.  I wasn't but in the face of all these recommendations I went and got it.  What a wonderful read -- I tore through it.  It resembles, or rather its effect on me resembles, other books that have been highlights of my reading life:  one would be "Hamlet's Mill" by Giorgio di Santillana (I know many readers her know that one) and "Black Athena" by Martin Bernal, and of course the various books of Frances Yates but above all "The Art of Memory."   The effect is to make me see, or feel, that human history is longer, more complicated, and richer than I had known it was possible to know, and each seemed to be not only convincing but obvious:  that is I KNEW that human life on earth was deep and surprising in this way, I KNEW that the standard accounts were thin and insufficient -- I just didn't have a different story to counterpose, a story that fielded the same kinds of historical evidence and marshalled the same kinds of argumentation (that is they weren't mystical or intuitive or visionary, or at least didn't operate on those terms) but to wholly different ends.

Each of them also, of course had opponents, or dismissers, or counter-arguers, Bernal right off the bat, Yates over time.  Santillana was just dismissed, as far as I could tell, in his field. 

Anyway 1491 is another of these -- an alternative story of life in the Americas that makes it just as big,as rich, as complicated, that makes the standard stories seem as thin and fictive, as those others.  Also (it seems) arousing as much opposition.

I loved it.  A couple of key insights I particularly exulted in:  that the European diseases that devastated the North American Indian populations soon after the Europeans arrived actually moved faster than the European push into the continent.  The European observers always noted how few indigenes they came upon.  Yet there is archaeological evidence for larger populations.  What happened was that those populations were reduced to almost nothing by disease before the Europeans encountered them.

Another:  It's a big part of the book (and relatively undisputed I guess) that far from lurking in endless virgin forest, the Indians of North America (South America too but my interest in the book was about North) were constant cultivators and managers, and the Edenic landscapes the first Europeans found were not natural but managed.  But what this book also claims is that some of the vast surplus of game and fauna that was encountered was also an illusion, in a way:  those famous sky-darkening flights of passenger pigeons, for instance, so well attested by Audubon and others:  evidence points (and the evidence and the analysis of it are clever and convincing -- to me) to the fact that pigeopn populations (and bison populations) were kept in check by Indian predation, and when Europeans encountered those vast flights and herds it was after the great plague that destroyed Indian society.



( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 25th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
the European diseases that devastated the North American Indian populations soon after the Europeans arrived actually moved faster than the European push into the continent. The European observers always noted how few indigenes they came upon. Yet there is archaeological evidence for larger populations. What happened was that those populations were reduced to almost nothing by disease before the Europeans encountered them.

While I haven't yet read this book, I have read a similar story (I can't remember where so unfortunately can't cite the source) regarding honeybees: they were imported by Europeans, but spread faster, and as I recall it was asserted in the book or article that natives came to see them as a bad omen: once the honeybees arrived they could be sure the Europeans weren't far behind.
Jul. 25th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Remember Longfellow: clover was called "the White Man's Footprint." RC
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
And just look at the destruction our imported earthworms -- also not indigenous to North America -- have wrought in American forests! They're slow but they're unstoppable! They're eating what's left of our woodlands out from under our feet!
Jul. 25th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
A lot of the basic information was in Roger Kennedy's Hidden Cities, but so embedded in the narrative of the later settlers misinterpreting what were already archaeological sites that the specifics of the situation ca. 1500-1750 get lost. The tale of the Great Dying is a bleak but evocative one.
Jul. 25th, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC)
Especially in successive accounts of the Spanish incursions and long-range journeys across the South toward the Southwest, there is a pattern of visit to thriving village, report of meeting with powerful local king, and later traveler finding no settlement or population because the first contact carried lethal disease.
Jul. 25th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
And the later traveler left to puzzle, because the disease process was so little understood.
Jul. 25th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
Of course there's Greenblatt's essay on Thomas Harriot's account of disease as "Invisible Bullets." I have heard that the aboriginal population was reduced by 90% over about a century, lots of it by smallpox. I've also heard that syphilis might have originally been an American disease that moved to Europe after contact (where it was confused with gonorrhea).

Also that at least on the East coast, the forests were actually parks since the original people -- Algonquins mainly? -- did extensive burning of undergrowth.

The idea that buffalo and passenger pigeons were so populous because their predators died off makes a lot of sense. Long ago I went to a seminar on rhythm with John Hollander, Evelyn Hutchinson, and Ralph Kirkpatrick. To my surprise Hutchinson, wonderful limnologist and ecologist in the bio department (I used to recognize him by his shock of white hair when I went down an aisle in the basement of Kline Science Library; he would be lying in his belly, tie over his shoulder to keep it off the dusty floor, reading very old journals), and -- get this -- Rebeca West's literary executor,-- to my surprise, I say, Hutchinson was the most interesting of the three. He talked about three kinds of rhythms, the last kind being population rhythms. Prey would reproduce and become populous, causing their predators to become populous. The predators would kill off most of the prey. Since there's always a lag between conception and birth, the predators population would explode just as the prey population crashed. The result was that the predators would crash, and the prey would explode. So there's a vicious spiral or sine-wave of predator-prey mistiming which Hutchinson said (I guess Fourier transforms show?) mimics that of other rhythmical phenomena, like heart-beats. Hutchinson's moral: rhythm occurs when something gets used up and then has to build up again. Sounds right to me.

You might find John Keegan's History of Warfare another amazingly rich book.

Jul. 25th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC)
All this discussion on diseases echoes with the current trend in history to look at biology to better understand history. I'm especially thinking about Jared Diamond's "Guns and germs."
Jul. 25th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
I read The Face of Battle but not this one. Enjoyed learning that the battlefield at Waterloo would have been entirely obscured by gun smoke, and that the majority of men in battles in WWII never fired their weapons.
Jul. 25th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
In "Guns and germs," Jared Diamond tries to explain why some societies have been more successful than others. In other words, he tries to explain the inequality among societies. (Hence the hostility he receives from some circles, accusing him of being a social Darwinist.)

What I found the most interesting part in this book is that, according to him, Europeans lived in a very promiscuous environment: Europe, because of its relatively tiny size, always supported a much denser population than elsewhere. Also, Europeans lived side-by-side with cattle. Both factors were key in the spreading of virulent diseases for which the Europeans, over time, developed immunity which was integrated in their DNA.

And so it came that when Europeans spread all over the globe, they brought with them their guns, of course, but also their germs against which they were immunized. Hence their success in dominating the world.

The question now is why them the Europeans were the first to spread as they did all over the world? That's the purview of the very challenging theory developed by David Cosandey, a theoretical physicist professor, called "the articulated thalassography." Europe, he argues, with its very jagged coastline encouraged the Europeans to develop, early one, innovative maritime techniques. But also, Europe was sufficiently large to enable the emergence of powerful States (and proto-Nation-States) which had the necessary power and resources to launch explorations, using the maritime techniques developed. Also, since these States were rivals, they often fought against each other, thereby encouraging innovation in weaponry and encouraged expansion beyond Europe as a way to take an edge in their rivalry.

Only Europe has this geographical setting: very jagged coastline and sufficient landmass to allow both the rising of powerful States and to put them the ones against the others.

More on his website: http://www.riseofthewest.net/index.htm
Jul. 25th, 2010 11:38 pm (UTC)
"Guns, Germs, and Steel".
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:59 am (UTC)
You're right.
Jul. 25th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)
You are one of the few others I know who, then, hasn't rejected Black Athena out of hand?

Re >i>1491</i>: we have friends who are ethnomusicologists and archeologists doing amazing work on the Pacific sides of Colombia and further south, coming up with astounding information of pre-Columbian South America.

Love, c.
Jul. 25th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
I've often felt that If I was an American,I would somehow feel I was "floating" on the land.In the UK,I think we are aware of history deep in our bones.For example,my family surname is that of a small town,14 miles away( note;our family is named for the town and not vice versa).It dates back to an Anglo Saxon prince making a settlement in the 6th century.Where I live now,there are Roman remains everywhere,a mediaval cathedral,Georgian town houses,Victorian public buildings and yes,ghastly 60s concrete monstrosities..I can't imagine not having that history under my feet.
Jul. 25th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
not to be too obviously flippant and metaphorical, but with my apologies, as a person with deep british geneological roots that tie me directly to the presidents bush, much to my amazement and chagrin, "an Oregonian is a Californian who knows better..."
if the native americans send us back, i'm coming back to your town. hope you guys like to party!
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
When they excavated the Roman fort where I live, they found the natives had set up brothels and alehouses right next door.We've always been a party town,Manchester in the UK if you're curious.
Jul. 26th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
very! Solihull, warwickshire's where i'd land, me and the bushes, descended from the staffords, turncoats and self-centered tyrants all!
it's true, your city has a world-class reputation for rowdy partying! manchester united, victorious in the car-park in not on the pitch!
americans have no homes, glorify mobility, fear we'll be caught out any moment as interlopers, or, to use the british example, colonizers, carpetbaggers, we call 'em, okies when they're forced to move on the fly. my ancestors are both and all...
history's one of my faves, and roman ruins to grow up amongst, rather than, or equal to indian raiders and arrowheads? for the child in us, is the time frame as important as the promise of age?
with the "last frontier" that brot my folks here to the pacific all explored, claimed, and gone, .....
Jul. 26th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
"Floating" is right. You walk through the Redwoods or the Grand Canyon or the Ozarks and unless you're a very boring person, you'll know that there is history under your feet. Then you get in your car and drive a thousand miles of highway past Wal Marts and gas stations and "old" cities that have only been around a couple hundred years. In Europe (and other parts of the Americas too but not the US and Canada), you constantly see evidence that you're a significant part of a very old tale. Even walking in the Alps, I regularly came upon inns that have been inhabited longer than Boston has been a city! But it's a trick, isn't it? The truth is that we ARE floating on the land, right? Or am I just so American that I can't feel otherwise!
Jul. 26th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)
The old American tale (a stold in 1491) was broken in two at the European discovery. Our (immigrant) old story isn't old but there's a very old one underfoot in many places It wasn't (in the North) made of stone, and you have to learn what you're seeing -- or standing on -- when you go (I certainly don;t know): but it's just as old as the Auld Country.
Jul. 26th, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
hofw to read the old signs
when the bike path you're riding used to be a railroad, you're reading signs of the past. evidence is all around. sorry, but if you want the true old story as i learned it on the road, you're going to have to look up "Rockman". i don't know what you'll find, just that it's certain underfoot!
Jul. 25th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
pre 1491 is like saying the history of the day before yesterday, and what i had for lunch. so many civilizations had appeared, disappeared, the largest cities in the world at their time....
we're getting closer to the beginnings of habitation, shrouded as they are in mysticism, there are sites in peru that speak of hallucinogenic cultures driven to patriarchy by drought thousands of years before we important white people arrived.
i myself have been told the end to this long story, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon by a native ghost who put his arm around my shoulder as i stared enthralled by the sight of millions of ghosts in flat hats and serapis filling the road in the moonlight, and said, "life's weird, ain't it?"
"these are all the people who ever came up out of the straw from the center of the earth at Havasupi springs. they're all waiting here for the day when we all go back..."
Jul. 25th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
it was 1984, and no, i wasn't on acid. my bus-mates wouldn't share....sigh!
Jul. 25th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
I got some of that sense of depth in time from a very local book called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England.

Having ridden horses across northeastern Massachusetts, I knew about reforested fields inside fieldstone walls, but thinking farther back, the idea that indigenous people managed the landscape was eye opening.
Jul. 26th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
I am about to get that book. Thamk you for the recommendation.
Jul. 26th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
It's a rare work of non-fiction that has the effect on me that 1491 had. As you describe, it seems to open all sorts of mental possibilities.

There's an eye-opening highlight on almost every page, but whenever I try to recommend it, I mention just two, one from the very beginning and one from the end. The first is the map at the start; redrawing the pre-Columbian Americas with "national" boundaries immediately forces you to rethink what you think you know about that era. The second is the description of the long-lived Haudenosaunee alliance. As Mann investigates its origins, you can feel the limits of history being pushed backward in time.
Jul. 28th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
The first is the map at the start; redrawing the pre-Columbian Americas with "national" boundaries immediately forces you to rethink what you think you know about that era.

The scary thing is that this is still happening. I was reading Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's magnificent if difficult Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005), in which one of the major sources of friction is that the government sees the Kalimantan forests on maps as just big green spaces, resources to be used, since the maps completely disregard the fact that people actually live in those forests. Thus the peoples who have called the forests home are politically understood not as natives whose homes are being invaded and destroyed but as, essentially, squatters on national property.
Jul. 26th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
can't help but add, "it seems as if there were a new history of the world...." lol
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