Charles Mann, science journalist and author of the paradigm-shifting 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, graciously agreed to speak to me about globalization, immigration, race, disease and food. As with all good works of history, his books provide as much insight into our present as they do into our past.
We used to believe that when the Europeans got to the Americas they found an Eden with abundant flora and fauna and not too many people. The best part was that the people and the rest of nature lived in this magically harmonious state. What you show in 1491 is that there were many more people and the plant and animal species weren’t as numerous because those people did a good job of controlling them.
They were outstanding land managers by and large. This was a technology that the original Americans were quite good at, and better in some ways than Europeans. That’s an entirely different thing than saying that they lived in a timeless harmony with nature, like perfect Sierra Club tourists. Nobody really knows how many people were here, but [for many years] the most widely accepted estimate for the population in North America, north of the Rio Grande, in 1492 was about 900,000. I think it’s fair to say that almost nobody believes this anymore. Typical estimates [now] are 10 to 15 million, and that’s a whole lot different than 900,000. Although that makes North America less populous than Mesoamerica, that still leaves plenty of room for human imprint on the landscape.
Do smaller numbers alleviate guilt about what happened?
The logic seems to be: if there are only 900,000 people, much of the landscape is empty, so it’s okay if we move in. That’s a little bit like saying that it’s more okay to take over part of someone’s land out west if they have ten acres than it is someone in Massachusetts if they only have an acre. Under our laws, it’s equally bad no matter what you do. [Native] property right systems were different from ours, but they certainly had a clear idea that this was their land in ways that are similar to ways we think about our land. The fact that they were thin on the ground wouldn’t be a defense.
But the destruction of those civilizations wasn’t as much through war but more through diseases.
[Diseases were] a weapon we didn’t understand or control. Neither side did. Both of them understood the disease as manifesting somehow the will of the heavens or the spirits. The English people saw that the natives fell to sickness and said to themselves in essence, “Wow, God must really like us!” Native people made the exact same calculation but from the reverse and said, “Wow, we must have done something wrong.”
1491 is about the Americas, but 1493 is about the post-Columbian world. We think about post-1492 as a European story, but it wasn’t just the Europeans.
Obviously, the Europeans had a directive role. But if you look at it with a different lens, you see different things. If you look at it demographically, you’d see that before Columbus Europeans were largely in Europe, Africans were almost all in Africa, Asians were almost all in Asia, Indians were almost all in the Americas. After Columbus, the human species gets tremendously jumbled up. You end up with places like Argentina and Australia dominated by Europeans, Brazil dominated by Africans and Chinatowns all over the world. The driver of all of this is the slave trade, and what you would see if you were a biologist or an ecologist is this huge die off in the Americas followed by this enormous wave of Africans coming from Africa with Europeans playing a peripheral role. From that perspective what you’re seeing then is a meeting of Africa and the Americas rather than Europe [and the Americas].
We’re taught that there are large numbers of Africans in the New World, but we think of them as cattle or sheep. We don’t think of them as actors.
And they were actors. That’s something that we really have trouble with for a couple of reasons. One is that most people in this country are of European descent, so naturally we tend to think that our ancestors were the most important. The second thing is that a lot of what the Africans did they did out of sight of the Europeans. The relations they had with the native populations were something that was deliberately done outside of the European purview.
Not that those groups had an automatic affinity for each other, but as you describe in 1493 they saw that in some cases that they had good reason to work together.
In some cases, and in some cases they didn’t. In some cases they cooperated at a distance, like the “Red Seminoles” and “Black Seminoles” in Florida where they set up parallel societies. In some cases they completely mingled with each other, which is mostly the case in Brazil. In some instances one society would be more dominant, and you find this in the case of the Cherokee. Lots of Africans became Cherokee, and they essentially preserved Cherokee society. In the coast of Ecaudor in the Esmeraldas, you had an African society which many native people joined and essentially became Africans. In some cases they just fought. In the Yucatan, the Maya, who were never really subjugated by the Spanish, lots of Africans said, “these look like good people,” and they declared that they were Maya, but the original Maya didn’t like that. There was lots of tension between the “Red Maya” and the “Black Maya”.
As an Asian American I felt vindicated when I read about the amount of Asian activity in the Americas, specifically Chinese and Fujianese.
By Chinese we’re speaking very broadly. The biggest complement [in the Americas] were the Fujianese who weren’t Han [the dominant ethnic group in China], although there’s tons of Han involved. The other thing that makes this difficult is that a lot of the readily accessible records are Spanish. They didn’t know who these people were; they called them all “chinos”. [Asians] are busy, active partners in this world that we’re all creating willy-nilly together.
And you don’t usually have that many people migrate without some significant interbreeding or intermarriage.
That certainly happened in Latin America. This is another area where American historians have been timid. There is a tendency to think, “English people didn’t do this.” This just isn’t true, and this is the reason we’re finding all sorts of surprises when people get their genes tested.
Why is it that in Northern North America we are predominantly a European people with a smattering of Americans?
Right after the Civil War there was a huge wave of immigration from Europe to the United States. That is when Europeans really became dominant, in the latter part of the 19th century. It begins with a lot of Irish that come in the 1840s and 1850s, then continues for a couple of decades. The Germans come in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, then the Russians. That’s when the United States takes on a strongly European character. As the country becomes more “multicultural”, it’s really tending back toward its origins.
The second part is that the US is split apart by the malaria line [which corresponds to the Mason-Dixon Line]. There’s a dramatically different demographic history in the southern part of the east coast than the northern part. In places like Brazil, if you were a plantation owner, you had to import all of these foreigners because Europeans wouldn’t go. In New England, Europeans could go and probably wouldn’t die. New England is a weird outlier among all of these colonial societies because they were a European majority in a way that most other parts of the Americas were not. Because a lot of American historians come from New England, people have a natural tendency to look around them and imagine that what they’re seeing is true everywhere else.
Have you noticed the nostalgia people have for a “pure”, back-to-our roots history?
There’s all kinds of nostalgia, but they hearken back to an imagined past. I experience it when I grow vegetables in my garden, and some part of that is some imagined simplicity in the past.
Like the myth that we had food security until modernization and globalization interfered?
The average 17th century European did about as well as somebody from Zimbabwe today [see A Farewell to Alms for more]. It’s really striking to see that Europe couldn’t feed itself for centuries upon centuries. Then globalization happens and they get the potato and maize. It’s hard to be glib about globalization when you think about this.
For much more on these topics- plus slavery, agriculture and how the Columbian Exchange just might have caused the Little Ice Age- please pick up a copy of 1493 today. The younger reader in your family will also enjoy Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491, co-authored with Rebecca Stefoff, which covers much of the material in 1491 in a way that younger readers will appreciate.