Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


September 26th, 2017

On Twitter someone recently asked, What book has changed the way you see the world?

I’ve just finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus — and it’s been that kind of book for me.

Written by Charles C. Mann and originally published in 2005, 1491 presents a view of the Americas before Columbus that is in sharp contrast to what most Americans my age learned in school.

This is a fascinating, well-researched, and well-written book. I’d read articles and extracts based on it, but the details included in the full text really drive home the author’s main points:
• that the indigenous population of the Americas before Columbus was much higher, diverse, and sophisticated than has traditionally been believed;
• that between the arrival of Columbus and the settlement of what would become the American colonies, disease swept through both North and South America, decimating these once-large populations and wiping out civilizations;
• that because of this, North America only appeared to be a “virgin continent” and relatively unpopulated;
• that Indians** acted as a “keystone species” essentially engineering much of the landscape to suit their needs — for example, burning off the undergrowth in New England forests, modifying land for agriculture, encouraging the growth of nut-bearing and other useful trees, and discouraging the proliferation of species that competed for these resources.

What we think of today as North American wilderness and the “primeval” Amazon are both, in large part, recent phenomena, existing only since disease eliminated indigenous cultures.

This is compelling stuff on so many levels. First and most obviously, that many millions of people died of disease — up to 95% of the population by some estimates – and hundreds (thousands?) of cultures simply vanished.

Apocalypse is a popular topic in science fiction. What happens to a culture when 95% of its people suddenly die off? Nothing works after that. Technology, history, the complex network of human interaction that allows food to be grown and goods to be produced and traded simply vanishes. Those few who are left will be left with very little and no real means to replace what was lost. Mann uses the phrase “Holmberg’s Mistake” to describe the conclusion of an anthropologist who studied a “primitive” Amazon tribe and came to believe that these people had lived thus for thousands of years, not considering the possibility that they were the descendants of a handful who survived a real apocalypse.

In his novel The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley Robinson looks at an opposite scenario in which disease wiped out Europe. In that long and intricate story, the native populations of Europe never recover.

There is a sense of inevitability about this apocalypse. Once the Atlantic crossing was accomplished, was there any way, realistically, that it could have been prevented? Disease was not understood on either side and disease swept the continents very early after first contact.

Kim Stanley Robinson, again, is one of the few science fiction writers who has taken into account this biological vulnerability of populations. It becomes a major factor in his recent novel Aurora. And of course HG Wells used it in War of the Worlds. But in general it’s surprising how rarely disease is taken into account when human protagonists land on alien planets. The subject deserves more attention. Life — viral, bacterial, or alien-molecular-other — can be incredibly dangerous in unpredictable ways, with genetically similar populations being the most vulnerable.

I live in Hawaii, a once-isolated island group. The Hawaiian people suffered the depredations of disease much as American Indian populations did. Native plants and animals suffered as well. Visit Hawaii now and you will see almost no native plant and animal species unless you hike into the mountains or visit gardens featuring native plantings.

In 1491 Mann quotes descriptions of vast flocks of passenger pigeons, billions of birds together that could strip the land of food. I’ve heard these descriptions before and they always seemed over the top. By the time I reached this section of 1491, it was easy to guess that these incredible populations were likely not a sign of natural abundance, but rather a species out of balance, grown to unsustainable numbers because of a sudden and profound change in the ecology of North America. And that change can be attributed, at least in part, to the disappearance of Indian cultures whose people had been managing the landscape to suit their own needs for thousands of years.

For me, this is a profoundly different way to think of ecology and wilderness. Here in Hawaii, the only way native forests will be able to survive into the future is with constant human maintenance and support. This takes many forms: building and maintaining fences to keep non-native mammals – deer, feral goats and pigs — out of natural areas; eliminating those mammals that do get in; trapping smaller non-native species such as cats and mongoose, that prey on native birds; poisoning rats (non-native); poisoning or physical removal of invasive plant species; etc.

It’s a hell of a lot of work. I’ve done some of it myself and I’ve wondered, Is this sustainable? Is this an activity that can be carried forward into future decades and centuries? Is it still “natural” or “wilderness” if this is what it takes to see native forests survive? For me, thinking of the Americas as vast “gardens” maintained by the work of Indian populations casts a new and positive light on the concept of maintaining vulnerable Hawaiian forests into perpetuity.

Purely by chance, as I was moving on to the appendices of 1491 I happened to watch the 2016 movie The Lost City of Z — a beautifully made movie set in the early part of the 20th Century which looks at Amazonia, exploration, and the conflict between traditional Western thought on the “green desert” of the Amazon basin, and the ideas described by Mann — that the Amazon forest supported large complex cultures.

Finally, 1491 is not just about history. It’s also about science and a reminder of the need to question what we think we know and to continually evaluate the effect of our own biases.

** I’m echoing terminology used in the book. See Appendix A “Loaded Words”.

Posted on: Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 at 6:00 am
Categories: Book Rave, Reading.
Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “1491

  1. Vonda N. McIntyre Says:

    1491 is an amazing, shake-up-your-brain book.

    Its sequel, 1493, is equally well-researched and moving, and also heart-breaking.


  2. Marie Says:

    Thanks for this, the book sounds fascinating. Especially the discussions of disease wiping out populations. Public health experts are very worried about the next pandemic, which is virtually guaranteed to happen at some point.

  3. Clyde Says:

    OK. Now in my TBR stack.

  4. Linda Says:

    Now I’m going to need to read 1493…

  5. allynh Says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment since I finished reading through all your stuff again.

    Well done….

    I read through _Light and Shadow: Eight Short Stories_. I saw that _The Way Home_ was part of the same world as your Nanotech and Military SF and Fantasy. All coexist comfortably in the same world. Each story line can remain separate, with only me, the reader, putting them all together. HA!

    BTW – Look at your _Memory_ vs _1491_ and you will see the same thing, invasion/infestation/change.

    I need to read through all the Andre Norton again; it’s been decades, but I still have them all.

    I can’t remember the titles where she had star bases on alien worlds. The people who were visiting had to be careful not to get pregnant or give birth outside those star bases. The star bases kept a controlled environment, gravity, atmosphere, light, that matched the homeworld, so births were “true”. Those kids that were born on the alien world, outside the star bases, were chimera. The chimera were always the basis of the stories. How they did not fit into either world.

    I was reminded of that when I saw the trailer for Annihilation that is coming out next year, based on Vandemeer’s novel.

    Annihilation (2018) – Teaser Trailer – Paramount Pictures

    When you mentioned the passenger pigeons I was reminded of this episode I harvested from the PBS Newshour as a great example of infestation.

    How a Hawaiian island is fighting invasive parakeets