L. Paul Bremer Says: Bush Is a Liar
Objects in Your Calendar Are Closer than They Appear!

Charles C. Mann, "1491"--YAMMcLM[1]

Charles C. Mann writes, apropos of this page on his article and book 1491:

Dear Prof. DeLong,

While ego-surfing last night I came across your class page devoted to comments about my article. Needless to say I was quite flattered that you'd taken the time to inflict my work on your students.

In the spirit of keeping a discussion going, I thought I'd respond to some of your students' questions. If this isn't useful, please feel free to ignore.

Breana Pennington correctly observes that I "barely mentioned the horrible [e]ffects of the wars that went on between the whites and indians." This is because I was writing about demography and demographically they didn't amount to much. By the 18th century, disease had already wiped out 75-95% of the native population of the Americas. Indian warfare, awful as it often was, simply piled on another few percentage points to the mortality count.

In reference to Richard Schimbor's comment, David Thomason is spot on. Incidentally, I don't think this mode of argument gets the Europeans morally off the hook. It seems to me that you could make the argument that attacking the relatively few survivors of once- thriving peoples is morally worse than attacking healthy populations. But I'm not trained in moral philosophy, and so I stayed clear of an area that could really be a swamp. My focus, as I said in the piece, was less on how many died than how many had lived.

David Aviles, Ian Ebert and Lauren Tombari all ask (to quote Mr Aviles), "If [Indians] had such a large population, why hadn't they developed as much as other countries?" The answer to this very important question is complicated, but part of it surely is that evaluating relative levels of technological development is not so easy, and that it isn't at all clear that native peoples were less developed in this area than Europeans or Asians. As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure "progress" in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them -- Indians didn't have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It's hard to say which view is correct.

In addition -- sorry to go on at such length, but I think this is interesting to think about -- many European innovations were directly related to the existence of domestic animals. At the time of its construction, the Roman highway system had no direct equivalent in the Americas. Paved roads are obviously a sign of technological development, because you need them for large-scale transportation, right? But it would have been nuts for Indians to have built such roads, because they didn't have wheeled vehicles. And they didn't have wheeled vehicles (except as toys) because they didn't have horses, and they evidently calculated that the small gains in efficiency for human-powered vehicles was not worth the large costs in labor and materials to build highways, especially when rivers were an attractive alternative. (Compared to Europe, much of the Americas is river-rich.) So does this mean that Native America was less developed?

Lauren Tombari asks, "Wouldn´t there be some evidence of the many towns Desoto saw? Would there be ~100 million graves from the 95% death rate?" She will be happy to learn there is lots of evidence of the many towns seen by DeSoto. Although it is inexplicably absent from US history textbooks, there were literally thousands of mound cities and towns in the US Southeast and the Mississippi valley. Many have been destroyed, but my book, 1491, has a map of some of the main sites that remain. About the graves: the answer is no. In epidemics, people generally aren't buried, but left to die where they fall. The vast majority of those skeletons simply vanish. An example of this is the slaughter of the buffalo. We know from abundant historical records that less than 150 years ago hunters killed millions of bison in the Great Plains. Yet if you drive around there now, you don't see heaps of bones. The same, alas, happened to Indians. Of course it didn't happen to every Indian -- and there are many, many known Indian graveyards, so many that the federal government has passed special legislation to protect them.

John Janda would like to see "further explanations about how such [death] rates were determined." The original article contained more material, but it was cut by the editors, who were facing the task of fitting a very long article into the magazine. I subsequently published a bunch of the details and more material in Chapters 3 and 4 of my book.

Finally, Anna Romanowska says that Indians had no way to defend themselves from forced labor. Actually, this seems not to be the case. Remember, we're talking about 16th century Europe here, not today's Europe. The Europeans arrived at the end of a very long and unstable supply pipeline. In almost every case, natives pushed away early attempts to settle. Only when disease altered the equation were Europeans able to shoulder their way in. In this country, the French, Spanish, Dutch and English made more than 20 attempts to found colonies before the Pilgrims. All but one of them failed. The exception was Jamestown, in which almost 5 out of 6 colonists sent in the first 15 years died -- something that most people would regard as a failure. (St. Augustine, in Florida, was founded before Plimoth, but it was abandoned for years before being resettled, so I would count it as a failure, too.) Then comes the epidemic in New England, and suddenly, beginning with the Pilgrims, almost every English colony survives and thrives.

Hope this is interesting,


Charles C. Mann

[1]YAMMcLM--Yet another Marshall McLuhan moment.