An interview with Charles C. Mann
Author of '1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' speaks
Charles C. Mann's new book, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus," published in August by Knopf, is already a best seller and has
made The New York Times' list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. As the
Times put it, "This sweeping portrait of pre-Columbian civilization argues
that it was far more populous and sophisticated than previously thought."
In fact, Mann's book is a blockbuster. It brings together results of the
latest scientific research that has been focused on learning about the
American hemisphere before the so-called "discovery" by Columbus. Mann
presents this research in an easy, personable style that allows readers to
understand issues and concepts in complex fields like linguistics,
genetics, carbon dating, soil geography and epidemiology.
Combining these fields with recent findings from anthropology and
archaeology, Mann builds an overwhelming critique of conventional
stereotypes of the "new world": he shows that the indigenous population was
significantly greater and indigenous societies significantly more complex
than the stereotypical views present. Instead of a few wandering groups
scattered over the land, Mann shows that the latest research documents the
existence of millions of people in widespread and intricate civilizations
throughout the hemisphere, who succumbed not because they were "inferior"
to the colonizing invaders, but because they had no immunity to the
imported diseases. Epidemics reduced whole peoples to remnants unable to
defend themselves and their lands.
The publication of Mann's book shifts the entire paradigm of "discovery,"
colonization and the history of indigenous peoples in the Americas. This
book provides the foundation for a scientific history of the Americas. No
longer do we have to base our critique of the Bering Strait theory (or, as
the late Vine Deloria Jr. called it, the "BS theory") and all its attendant
nonsense about a "vacant land" only on our gut instincts and traditional
stories; now we can locate in one book the results of advanced Western
science that support our understandings.
Indian Country Today met Mann at one of the numerous public lectures he has
been presenting in the wake of his book's publication.
Indian Country Today: First, let us thank you for the enormously important
work you have done in writing this book. As our introduction to this
interview says, we consider "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus" to be a paradigm-shifting event.
Charles Mann: That's very kind of you. I guess I'd be more modest. I tried
in my book to show that if you take the long view ... a lot of different
research in different fields seems to fit together into a single big
picture -- a fascinating one, to my mind.
ICT: Let's start with a personal question: What motivated you to take on
this huge project?
Mann: It didn't start out that way. I'm a correspondent in the news
division of the journal Science. Twenty-plus years ago, the journal sent me
to cover a NASA expedition that was trying to learn about the depletion of
ozone layer. The scientists had a plane that flew across the hemisphere,
from way up north to way down south, sampling the upper atmosphere.
We stopped in Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula. For some reason the
scientists had the next day off, and we all rented a VW bus to see some of
the Maya ruins. I was completely astonished by them. I'd lived in Italy for
a couple years, so I knew something about the Roman ruins, and these seemed
to me to be every bit as sophisticated and beautiful -- and much bigger.
I'd learned about ancient Rome in high school, but not about the Maya. I
thought, "How come this wasn't part of the curriculum?"
Over the next few years, I wrangled assignments that would take me to
various parts of the Americas; and I always took a day or two extra to see
ancient sites. I used the journalist's privilege to call up strangers and
asked archaeologists and anthropologists and tribal officials what to see.
And over time I slowly built up a picture of what these people thought the
Americas before Columbus looked like, a picture that was extremely
different from what I had been taught in school.
Then, in the 1990s, my son was taught by his school exactly what I had been
taught in my school -- ideas that I knew were three or four decades out of
date. So I thought, "Gee, somebody should write a book."
ICT: As a writer, your focus has generally been on science, and you have
received prestigious awards for the best American science writing. How did
your experience with science writing shape your approach to the problems of
Mann: The most truthful answer to your question would be "I'm not sure."
But let me take a guess. Most historians are trained to work with only a
few types of evidence -- written documents, interviews, that kind of thing.
Scientists are opportunists who will use almost anything if it can provide
solid data. To learn about the prehistory of the Americas, one must go
beyond the written record, interesting as it is, to a host of novel
techniques ... This wasn't unfamiliar stuff to me, and so I'm perhaps more
comfortable with it than writers who don't operate out of the scientific
A second way that I might have benefited is that by coming to this subject
from a background in the physical sciences, as opposed to the social
sciences, I may have been less inhibited by some ancient prejudgments. Of
course, the downside is that I may have made some beginner's mistakes.
ICT: Your book shows many ways that modern science supports observations of
the earliest explorers and adventurers from Christian Europe, especially
with regard to indigenous population size, density and sophistication. Did
this congruence between science and old travel diaries surprise you?
Mann: Not really. To be sure, the European travelers had their own agendas
(to put it mildly) and were not always the most reliable witnesses (to say
the least). Yet I would agree with the historian Woodrow Borah, who
observed that 16th-century Europeans knew how to count and observe. So if a
bunch of them said there were lots of people in, say, the Amazon basin, it
seemed to me that the default hypothesis would be that there had been, in
fact, a lot of people at that place. Therefore I wasn't terribly surprised
when other types of evidence seemed to confirm it.
ICT: We were surprised to learn from your book how recent major scientific
findings in many fields would not have been possible only 50 years ago.
Carbon dating, for example, was only invented as a scientific tool in the
1950s and revolutionized archaeology. Tell us about the kinds of new
science upon which your book is based.
Mann: One way to summarize the new methods would be to say that they
represent the last 40 years' worth of innovation in fields such as
demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image
analysis (or whatever you call the techniques for interpreting satellite
photography), palynology [pollen analysis], molecular biology and soil
science. Also some other fields ...
Peter d'Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and worked with
Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe (DNA), the Navajo Nation legal services
program. He has been involved as an attorney and teacher with indigenous
legal issues. He is a professor emeritus of legal studies at the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst.