These were some of the notes I took from when I read 1491:
The populations of Native North Americans that European colonists interacted with were the survivors of a continent-wide holocaust that wiped out 90-95% of their population. Smallpox spread through the interior of the content faster than Europeans explored it, leaving empty civilizations in its wake. One of the reasons there wasn’t a permanent European settlement on the eastern seaboard until over 100 years after Columbus is that until that point, the coast was too crowded with people already living there. The colonists set up in the ruins of towns that were entirely wiped out by disease. Squanto (Tisquantum) the Indian who school children will be hearing about a lot in the next week, attached himself to the Plymoth colony only after escaping from captivity in Europe and returning to his home to find everyone dead. The same plague swept through Meso- and South America, but the Spanish explored faster, so we know more about the civilizations that lived there.
Native North Americans are described as hunter gatherers, because that’s what people revert to after civilization collapses. When their cultures were intact, the land of entire eastern US was intensely managed by them through a combination of direct agriculture, regular burning to clear underbrush and encourage game species normally found in the plains to spread into the woodland, and selective planting.
At least 10% of the Amazon Rainforest was planted by the people who lived there. Rather than clearing land for agriculture, they created forest gardens, and this arboreal agriculture supported large complex civilizations that we know almost nothing about.
There are giant causeways made of earth and full of shards of pottery spreading through miles of flood plain in the Beni in Bolivia. They were only discovered in the 1960s. There was evidently a large civilization living there that we know nothing about. That’s the level of discovery that’s still possible in this subject: advanced civilizations that are new to science.
Ultimately, the thing that affected me the most that I will remember forever is the idea of “earth as garden.” Mankind has changed irrevocably every land it has settled. Even in the Americas, traditionally thought of as a nearly untouched wilderness until Europeans arrived, was intensely modified and cultivated by the people who lived there. Much of what today we think of as wilderness was in its time planted deliberately by people. The ethics of environmentalism constantly stumble over defining what “natural” is. I propose that there is no such thing. The whole earth is a garden. It’s enough to try to keep it that way.
Most of what people were taught about pre-Columbian civilizations in America is wrong.
They were far more sophisticated than previously thought (and, for that matter, more sophisticated than Europe in a variety of ways), but their downfall was lack of immunity to Eurasian viruses. Reading 1491 is similar to the feeling one might have of encountering Chinese or Japanese civilization for the first time.
I would also like to plug a third book from Mann: The Wizard and the Prophet.
It's about two men, the godfathers of the Green Revolution and the modern environmental movement. The first, Borlaug, is a techno-optimist solving global hunger, while the second, Vogt, is a conservative vis a vis technology, modernity and demographics, and takes a Malthusian opposition to tech and growth.
I have come to see the conversation happening about tech, and between tech and mainstream American culture, as a conversation between wizards and prophets.
Neither side is wholly wrong, and both have good reasons as well as self-interest to believe what they do. But the way they understand the world is deeply different.
This might be a bit tangential, but I can't help but be reminded of this article on Two-Eyed Seeing, which says there's value in both the Western (scientific) view and the Indigenous (natural) view and they both have things to teach each other.
There's a brief video explaining in the above.
It's a topic I've not been able to find much reference to, though there's also a TEDx talk:
Even more tangential, but coincidently I was only today reading an article about the agricultural system in use in the article, growing maize, beans and squash often with the use of fish heads which was quite advanced and also nutritional - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_(agriculture)