- Classes & Trips
- Offsite Events
- Children & Teens
- Classes & Trips
- Summer Classes
- The Nonfiction Journey: From the Idea to the Page
- Fitzgerald and Hemingway: The "Great" 1920s
- Fish Without Bicycles: The Second Women’s Movement in America, 1963-1983
- Hungry for Words: An Inquiry Into the Art of Food Writing
- Right Brain Writing: Guided Prompts
- Graham Greene’s Spy Trio
- Reading the Short Story
- Finding Your Narrative: A Poetry Workshop for Beginners and Intermediates
- Saul Bellow: Deconstructing a Great American Novelist
- Classes for Children & Teens
- Summer Classes
- Book Printing
- Gifts | CDs | DVDs
- Membership & Community
- Local Restaurants
- Modern Times Coffeehouse
- DC Blogs
- Literary Organizations
- Support a Local School or Literacy Organization
- School Book Fairs & Partnership Fridays
- About Us
10 Questions with Charles Mann
Charles Mann is a journalist, not an anthropologist or an archeologist, but in 1491 he is able to do what scientists have so far failed to do—he cogently compiles for a wide audience the current science about America before Columbus. In the process he discovers that most of what we believe about indigenous Americans is false. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly magazines and the co-author four previous books including Endangered Noah’s Choice: The Future of Species and The Second Creation.
P&P Floor Manager Jon Huntington posed the following ten questions.
JH: Historically Native American life has been described by the portrait of the roaming noble savage. It seems that this conception has shifted somewhat in the last fifty years to a deeper understanding, but more progress could still be made. How do you view the changes in Native American conceptions regarding life before 1491?
CM: When I went to school, my teachers told me that Indians had walked across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago, that they existed for the most part in small, scattered bands, and that they lived so lightly on the land that for all intents and purposes when Columbus arrived the hemisphere was a vast wilderness. Today, it seems fair to say, most researchers believe all three of these were wrong. Indians were here far longer than previously believed, in far greater numbers than previously believed, and had much greater environmental impact than previously believed. But the majority of our textbooks seemingly have not caught up to this new understanding—they still pass briefly over what turns out to be a major part of the human story.
JH: What new insights does your book offer?
CM: If you’re a Ph.D. in the subject, most of my book will be familiar to you, although you might not know much about areas outside of your specialty. But there is such a gap between what researchers believe and what the general public knows that to most laypeople my book seems like one surprise after another. That said, I’ve received most comment on two sections of the book: the section on the way indigenous societies extensively remade their environments; and the section on why most researchers now believe that the Americas in 1491 were inhabited by tens of millions of people—possibly even as many as in Europe.
JH: Is popular education beginning to incorporate some of the findings discussed in your book?
CM: A little. One of the things that has been most personally gratifying to me as I’ve spoken to various groups about my book has been the reaction of high-school and elementary teachers, a number of whom have asked me for references and suggestions on how to incorporate this material into their curricula. In the past, Indian societies weren’t stressed in U.S. schools for many reasons, including simple ethnocentrism. I think that is changing. Good thing, too.
JH: What would be the significance of realizing a culturally complex history of indigenous America?
CM: This subject is too big to respond to completely in a succinct way, but here’s one aspect of an answer. I don’t think I’m breaking any news to note that the hemisphere today is a complicated, crowded, multiethnic place. A little noticed part of that is the resurgence of indigenous populations, which from Canada to Chile have much higher birthrates than most other groups—I’ve even heard people half-jokingly predicting a “reconquista” of the Americas. Our societies are going to be spending ever more time on indigenous issues. It’s about time, I would argue, that non-Indians had a better sense of who these people are and where they came from.
JH: Is the somewhat hidden history of our continent merely an interest for archaeologists or is it also important for the identity of modern America?
CM: Let me answer that indirectly. A couple decades ago, when I finished college, I lived for a couple years in Rome, Italy. I used to walk around the countryside and marvel at how you could practically see the aura of history hovering above the landscapes—all the societies that had been there in centuries before. And I would wish that our landscapes in the United States could be enriched by that sense of having a long, rich past. Well, it turns out that the past here is just as long and just as rich. We commonly call this hemisphere the New World, but it is just as old as the Old World, and has a past that is just as fabulous.
JH: The statistical estimates cited in your book are staggering, particularly the small pox death rates among Native Americans at 97%. How could the scope of such a large scale tragedy seemingly be ignored for so long? Are the scientists estimating higher population rates, “high counters,” generally accepted now or is it still a point of contention?
CM: Historians didn’t understand the consequences of the die-off partly because American history was for the most part a names-and-dates-of-elites affair until the 1960s. (There were some exceptions, but I think this is true on the whole.) As a result, most historians simply didn’t think about disease as a historical force in itself. Probably the books that broke through in this regard were Alfred W. Crosby’s Columbian Exchange in 1972 and William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples four years later. (Both are terrific books, by the way, and remain well worth reading.) Because it takes a while for new perspectives to sink in, it probably wasn’t until the 1980s that most historians understood and accepted that epidemic disease had played such a major role in American history. From there, it was fairly straightforward to wonder what had been the pre-epidemic population of the hemisphere.
The subject is still a matter of contention, but I believe that the high counters are now the majority. That said, there are still some people who argue for way lower numbers, and most high counters do not accept the very highest numbers.
Incidentally, I’d like to correct your question slightly. Typical death rates for unvaccinated, “virgin soil” populations from smallpox seem to be around 40%. The higher estimates for Indian mortality come when you try to add up the effects of multiple epidemics of multiple diseases.
JH: A lot of the recent findings in your book were the result of innovative technological research (i.e. examining silt in the Gulf of Mexico for traces of drought). How much more data can be gleaned using new technology or is there a data ceiling in the field?
CM: I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the limit, but I don’t know what that limit is, either. Researchers are clever, and keep coming up with new techniques. In addition, there are many places where existing techniques have not been applied. There’s much more to find out.
JH: One of the most fascinating revelations in your book is the ideological roots of American liberty in the Haudenosaunee contract of peace. Is this ideological model still relevant today?
CM:“Ideological” might not be the right word here—something like “cultural,” perhaps. This is a highly controversial argument that has historians on both sides calling each other names. So whatever you say, somebody will tell you it’s all wet. That giant caveat aside, the question is whether and to what extent living cheek by jowl with Indian populations affected colonial society. I think the evidence is fairly strong that colonial society was affected, and that one of the main ways was by absorbing some Northeastern Indian views about personal autonomy and freedom. Time and time again, European visitors to the Northeast remarked on how the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) rejected what we today would call class distinctions and centralized authority. I quote various visitors noting that the Haudenosaunee and their neighbors called Europeans “slaves” because they had to obey their kings and nobility, no matter what. And it’s hard not to notice that when Europeans visited the U.S. in the 19 th century that they constantly complained how the citizenry refused the respect due to persons of quality, etc., in language that is strikingly similar to the language colonists used about native peoples a century or two before. So it seems plausible to me that some of the American democratic spirit had its roots in the people who were here first. That doesn’t mean, you know, that Indians wrote the Constitution or anything like that, but that two centuries of exposure to the attitudes and behaviors of this nation’s original inhabitants had some impact on the colonists.
JH: The story of the Cahokia floods and the resulting inability of the high priesthoods to deal with the mounting disasters by means other than propaganda and religious distraction seem to be analogous with issues of power we still face today. What can we learn from examples like the Cahokia’s?
CM: Cahokia, located near modern St. Louis, was the biggest city north of the Rio Grande until maybe 1800 (the exact date depends on which population estimates you believe, but you get the idea—it was a big, sophisticated place). It sprang up relatively suddenly around 1000 A.D. and collapsed, also relatively quickly, around 1350 A.D. Partly because of decades of environmental neglect and mismanagement, catastrophic floods apparently wiped out big chunks of the city. The government’s popular support depended on its ability to protect its people from natural disasters and to help them quickly and efficiently if one occurred. After the floods, the leaders’ poll numbers, so to speak, seem to have declined rapidly. They seem to have attempted to rescue things by promising to stay the course while emplacing massive political campaigns that they hoped would at least change the subject from past governmental failures. I don’t know if any of this has any direct relevance today, but it is interesting to note that the Cahokia leaders’ scheme to rescue themselves appears not to have worked.
JH: Jared Diamond’s popular book Collapse chronicles the fall of civilizations as a result of ecological conditions, but just as instructive is the amazing ability of certain civilizations to thrive in adverse conditions. Do you see your book as similar to Diamond’s in this way?
CM: Diamond’s book is the summary of one researcher’s views. Naturally, he diverges from most of his colleagues from time to time. My book, by contrast, is a journalist’s attempt to say what the majority of researchers think is true, while trying to allow for the dissenters. This isn’t to criticize Prof. Diamond; he just wrote a different kind of book. Anyway, in my experience (which may be unrepresentative or just plain wrong), most of the archeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and so on whom I have spoken with think that Diamond’s book is a bit unrealistic in focusing on environmental problems as a major reason that societies collapse. Ecological issues do indeed pose grave difficulties, these researchers tell me, but they are rarely dispositive.