1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review

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Review:

1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

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Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue Book Review

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Review:

William Stolzenburg’s Where the Wild Things Were was one of my favorite non-fiction reads in recent years, and Stolzenburg became an instant favorite author. I was really excited when I heard he’d published a new book and checked it out immediately.

Like Where the Wild Things Were, Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue was extremely well-written, absorbing, and eye-opening. However, I’m not going to downplay it: it is also an absolutely gut-wrenching litany of destruction. There were several points where I had to put the book down for awhile, because I just couldn’t take it anymore. So much senseless slaughter, so many unique and fascinating species lost forever.

As an antidote to the heartbreak, Stolzenburg shares amazing and inspirational stories about the incredible heroics performed by conservationists like Richard Treacy Henry  in an attempt to rescue the survivors, as well as discussions of modern scientifically-led efforts to remove invasive predators and restore sensitive habitats for birds and other wildlife in New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands, among others. In particular, he focuses on efforts to save the Kakapo, a large flightless green parrot from New Zealand. Here’s a clip of the bird itself:

It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in wildlife conservation, ecology, or natural history. It also makes a good companion read for Quamman’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.

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My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators Book Review

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Review:

Veteran science writer William Stolzenburg’s first book Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators is a passionate call for large predator conservation.

Stolzenburg’s enthusiasm for his topic is infectious, and aided by a talent for clearly explaining the complicated relations between predator and prey.

The book begins with a short disclosure of the author’s biases, then launches into a history of scientific research into the ecological effects of the predator-prey relationship, in the course of which Stolzenburg delivers an extremely convincing case that predators are not only part of biodiversity, but actually necessary to maintaining it.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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Review:

Want to read

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of one of the best popular science books on climate change, and with this book, she tackles the subject of extinction. Specifically, the belief of many scientists that Earth is currently undergoing its sixth mass extinction event as a result of human activities such as habitat destruction, overhunting, and anthropogenic climate change.

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction Book Review

Review:

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Despite being fascinated by the topic and partial to the author (who’s one of the best science writers working today, in my opinion), it took me years to actually sit down and read The Song of the Dodo because it’s well over 600 pages (not counting footnotes) – dauntingly long for a mom of young kids. However, I finally managed it!

Quamman is able to successfully make the sometimes quite technical subject of island biogeography both accessible and fascinating. The study of island biogeography – which is essentially studying what lives where, and why, with particular attention to islands – has been critical to developing our understanding of the processes of both evolution and extinction. The Song of the Dodo includes a long and fascinating account of the early history of evolutionary science, with a focus on the life and travels of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace is famous to most people as the guy who came up with the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin and almost got credit for it, but he played a larger role than Darwin in the early development of the study of island biogeography.

Island biogeography is important to evolutionary science not only because of the incredible profusion of unique and bizarre creatures on the world’s remote islands, but also because it was the study of patterns of distribution of island flora and fauna that demonstrated most plainly to Darwin, Wallace, and other evolutionary biologists both past and present that if God had a hand in evolution (as the theory of special creation, the dominant theory in Darwin’s time, assumed He did), He followed some very strict rules in determining the distribution of island species… rules that just happened to be indistinguishable from what you would expect to find from a close study of the dispersion ability of different species.

For example, islands tend to have a lot of birds, which can fly or be blown across stretches of open ocean, but few amphibians, whose moist skin makes them sensitive to saltwater and incapable of surviving extended ocean voyages. Many of the most remote volcanic islands, such as Hawaii or the Galapagos, have no native amphibians at all. Observations like these led to Wallace’s deduction that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species” – an insight which seems like simple common sense today, but which was a game-changing flash of genius at the time it was made.

Islands have also been critical to our understanding of extinction, and here is where island biogeography becomes important not just to the history of science and the residents of islands, but to the entire world. Human activities are increasingly carving up mainland wilderness into patches of habitat that are, in many cases, isolated as effectively from other patches of wilderness as the remotest volcanic island is from the shore. And because island ecosystems tend to have higher rates of extinction than mainland ecosystems, we can study island extinction patterns to learn what is in store for species trapped in isolated refuges on the mainland. (Spoiler: extinction, frequently.)

Quamman unfurls all these points with literary style and copious use of real world examples, collected in his extensive travels and interviews with working scientists on islands both literal and de facto. My only complaint about the book is his fondness for extended digressions. They are generally as fascinating as everything else (watching komodos, trying to find a thylacine, sharing the story of an extraordinary teenage naturalist from Madagascar and his work with lemurs), but it leads to a lot of hopping around in space and time, which lends the book a somewhat disorganized feel at times.

I also wonder if, with a tighter narrative, there might have been more room for discussion of the practical applications of island biogeography, which didn’t get much attention in Quamman’s book. For example, wildlife managers use insights from island biogeographers about how to maintain viable populations in the face of human encroachment to develop conservation corridors that allow species to safely travel between isolated patches of habitat. Fortunately, corridors and other topics in practical conservation ecology are discussed at length in books such as Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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