Recreating A World Before Discovery

11 Jan

Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (excerpted next) is really what scholarly research should be, if professors weren’t entrusted to write for themselves and criticize their peers. The book-length monograph is a critique of what Mann terms “Holmberg’s Mistake”.

Holmberg was a careful and compassionate researcher whose detailed observations of Sirionó life remain valuable today. And he bravely surmounted trials in Bolivia that would have caused many others to give up. During his months in the field he was always uncomfortable, usually hungry, and often sick. Blinded by an infection in both eyes, he walked for days through the forest to a clinic, holding the hand of a Sirionó guide. He never fully recovered his health. After his return, he became head of the anthropology department at Cornell University, from which position he led its celebrated efforts to alleviate poverty in the Andes. Nonetheless, he was wrong about the Sirionó. And he was wrong about the Beni, the place they inhabited—wrong in a way that is instructive, even exemplary.

Before Columbus, Holmberg believed, both the people and the land had no real history. Stated so baldly, this notion—that the indigenous peoples of the Americas floated changelessly through the millennia until 1492—may seem ludicrous. But flaws in perspective often appear obvious only after they are pointed out. In this case they took decades to rectify.

The Bolivian government’s instability and fits of anti-American and anti- European rhetoric ensured that few foreign anthropologists and archaeologists followed Holmberg into the Beni. Not only was the government hostile, the region, a center of the cocaine trade in the 1970s and 1980s, was dangerous. Today there is less dtrafficking, but smugglers’ runways can still be seen, cut into remote patches of forest. The wreck of a crashed drug plane sits not far from the airport in Trinidad, the biggest town in the province. During the drug wars “the Beni was neglected, even by Bolivian standards,” according to Robert Langstroth, a geographer and range ecologist in Wisconsin who did his dissertation fieldwork there. “It was a backwater of a backwater.” Gradually a small number of scientists ventured into the region. What they learned transformed their understanding of the place and its people.

Just as Holmberg believed, the Sirionó were among the most culturally impoverished people on earth. But this was not because they were unchanged holdovers from humankind’s ancient past but because smallpox and influenza laid waste to their villages in the 1920s. Before the epidemics at least three thousand Sirionó, and probably many more, lived in eastern Bolivia. By Holmberg’s time fewer than 150 remained—a loss of more than 95 percent in less than a generation. So catastrophic was the decline that the Sirionó passed through a genetic bottleneck. (A genetic bottleneck occurs when a population becomes so small that individuals are forced to mate with relatives, which can produce deleterious hereditary effects.) The effects of the bottleneck were described in 1982, when Allyn Stearman of the University of Central Florida became the first anthropologist to visit the Sirionó since Holmberg. Stearman discovered that the Sirionó were thirty times more likely to be born with clubfeet than typical human populations. And almost all the Sirionó had unusual nicks in their earlobes, the traits I had noticed on the two men accompanying us.

Even as the epidemics hit, Stearman learned, the group was fighting the white cattle ranchers who were taking over the region. The Bolivian military aided the incursion by hunting down the Sirionó and throwing them into what were, in effect, prison camps. Those released from confinement were forced into servitude on the ranches. The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.

Far from being leftovers from the Stone Age, in fact, the Sirionó are probably relative newcomers to the Beni. They speak a language in the Tupí-Guaraní group, one of the most important Indian language families in South America but one not common in Bolivia. Linguistic evidence, first weighed by anthropologists in the 1970s, suggests that they arrived from the north as late as the seventeenth century, about the time of the first Spanish settlers and missionaries. Other evidence suggests they may have come a few centuries earlier; Tupí-Guaraní–speaking groups, possibly including the Sirionó, attacked the Inka empire in the early sixteenth century. No one knows why the Sirionó moved in, but one reason may be simply that the Beni then was little populated. Not long before, the previous inhabitants’ society had disintegrated.

To judge by Nomads of the Long Bow, Holmberg did not know of this earlier culture—the culture that built the causeways and mounds and fish weirs. He didn’t see that the Sirionó were walking through a landscape that had been shaped by somebody else. A few European observers before Holmberg had remarked upon the earthworks’ existence, though some doubted that the causeways and forest islands were of human origin. But they did not draw systematic scholarly attention until 1961, when William Denevan came to Bolivia. Then a doctoral student, he had learned of the region’s peculiar landscape during an earlier stint as a cub reporter in Peru and thought it might make an interesting topic for his thesis. Upon arrival he discovered that oil-company geologists, the only scientists in the area, believed the Beni was thick with the remains of an unknown civilization.

Not only does Mann’s account of both the Americas before Columbus or of the scholars and adventurers who assembled the orthodox account of depct the treasure the first adventurers looted, but the book itself is a journalist’s gift of a treasure trove of alternative perspectives of a lost world. Indeed, a quarter of the file is endnotes and bibliography that has already contributed to another swelling of my reading wishlist. This no one-sided account, but a respectful, yet forceful opinion on the state of numerous fields of research that intersect to inform every schoolkids’ common notions of the American past. This book influenced me in many ways, and not just intellectually. Reading the account of how maize might have been domesticated, I had this sudden urge to make my own tortillas. An account of the Inka empire led me to contemplate a vacation to Peru. Another account of the mounds at Cahokia led me to plan another trip. And, a discussion of the historical span of polities culminating in the Aztec empire recalled readings of The Iliad.

Yet, it were those Inkas that sparked two of the more scholarly revelations. One is the “maritime foundation of Andean civilization” (MFAC) hypothesis, propounded by Michael E. Moseley that challenges the orthodox view, that a civilization requires at least one cereal crop and land-based agriculture to flourish. Another revelation was the un-Hobbesian contention, that a civilization could form a state, not to protect itself militarily from foreign invaders or internal civil strife, but to organize an economic empire, in the pre-Inka peoples’ case, starting with a maritime-based foundation. Perhaps politics can trump economics after all. Finally, a controversial discussion of the Amazon as the fallow remnants of an artificial garden leads to a critique of the Enlightenment’s favorite prejudice, the “noble savage”. If native American peoples, both north and south, were stewards of the land, whether by creating vast swathes of arborial gardens or through slashing and burning forests and prairies, to manage flora and fauna, what is left of the Edenic myth to believe?

Mann’s prose is lively and conversational, although his wide-ranging scope, from north to south, and across time, can be somewhat dizzying. It’s rare to read someone who is genuinely intrigued by his/her subject and who can treat contradictory theories and sparring proponents fairly. I just wish more of my professors had taught like this.

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