1491 Review

History of Americas Provides Allegory for Designers to Think Outside our Perspective

June 7, 2014

1491 book cover

Many of the most prominent ideas of pre-Columbus Native Americans comes from outsiders reporting on their initial encounter. In what Charles C. Mann refers to as Holmberg’s Mistake (named after a prominently refuted anthropologist), people assume that what they see in the moment is representative of what it’s always been. Observers are so wrapped up in their own perspective, they are often unable to see the larger context.

Behind the Scenes, There is Design

1491 is packed with interesting histories of engineering, government, immigration, the natural world, and sociology. And the book’s underlying theme is that the history of the Americas in incredibly dynamic. Early European explorers (as well as current history books) failed to understand that the European-American encounter was just a snapshot in an ever-changing landscape. In a literal way, Native Americans transformed the natural world through agricultural, construction, and intentional fires. That beautiful meadow is not untouched nature, it may be a product of ongoing design started a thousand years ago.

The Researcher Affects the Research

The European encounter radically transformed Native American society. Europeans brought diseases to the Americas and the epidemics traveled faster than the explorers – killing as many as 90% of the native population. Many of the early accounts of Native society were not reporting on an “untouched” world but rather a post-apocalyptic society recovering from major population losses and the lack of infrastructure and cultural institutions that come with it.

Difficult to Identify Innovation

To this day, many people fail to realize the tremendous impact that pre-1491 American technology has had on the world. As much as 3/5 of the crops in use today (corn, tomatoes, and peppers) were developed through scientific experiments lasting hundreds – if not thousands of years.