I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)
It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.
In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.
Just a thought.
Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”
But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”
Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:
Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.
Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.
This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”
After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?
Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.
From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.
So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.