Decolonizing Latin America as Social Geography: Comments on Charles Mann’s 1491.

[Image: Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America, 1964–65) is a 300 square meters (3,200 sq ft) mural at the hall of the Arts House of the University of Concepción, Chile. It is also known as Latin America’s Integration (Wikimedia Commons)]

The origins of Latin America and the Caribbean as a place involve layers of designations of space and place, forming a lexicon which constructs our mental understanding of the geographies incorporated into “Latin America” and “the Caribbean”. Both of these categories, like other socially constructed geographies such as “Europe” (a product of the emergence of what is now Europe as a center of the capitalist world-system), defy rigidly scientific understandings of geography. Europe is, geologically speaking, a peninsula of Asia, and while Latin America roughly corresponds with South America, Latin American cultural designations extend into North America via Mexico (and even into the United States according to many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chicanx nationalist theorists).

Latin America, or more accurately Latinoamerica, is a Spanish European term, later instrumentalized by French imperialism, to justify its presence based on the “Latinaity” of the region, while “Caribbean” is derived from Carib, an indigenous people of the region, but also has a colonial root. During the days of early Spanish rule, racist mythologies made “Carib” and “Cannibal” synonymous in colonial records and cultural memory, and thus the Spanish by designating the region as the “Caribbean”, also designated the entirety of the populations of that region as cannibals (Hulme, 1992).

1732 Map of the “West Indes”, what we now call the Caribbean (Herman Moll).

It is because of these colonial interventions into the social geographies of what we call Latin America and the Caribbean that theorists like Mignolo (2005) call for a rejection of the category of Latin America as a colonialist regional conception forged by Creole elites in collaboration with the Europeans. Mignolo extends this argument saying that the imagining of a “homogenous” Latin America works to “render invisible” indigenous populations of African descent and the Chincanx/Latinx population of the US.

Yet, at least for now, Latin America is still with us as a social-geographic category. But despite of (or maybe because of) its persistence as a category which subsumes so many others, its meaning is constantly contested. Indeed, how could it not be? As Sanabria writes:

“Dozens of countries and territories with half a billion citizens; hundreds of languages spoken; millions of people concentrated in huge megacities, many others living in rural communities; every imaginable ecological niche spread over eight million square miles of land and sea; diverse historical trajectories, some pointing to Africa, some to Europe, and others firmly rooted in the New World; a long history of movement (diasporas) within and across national boundaries; hundreds or thousands of groups with their own self-ascribed, ethnic identity; a multiplicity of overlapping racial types and classifications, far from stable and rooted in biology; widely diverse notions of sexuality and gender relations; dozens of religious traditions and hundreds of diverse rituals, both secular and religious; widely dissimilar ways of construing health and classifying and treating illness; hundreds of different foods and cuisines; dozens of musical and dance traditions; a wide array of secular and religious popular celebrations with African, European, and New World influences—this is Latin America and the Caribbean…yet, what makes this a space or area of study and research? On the basis of which criteria or ideological positions do scholars delimit what is and what is not “Latin America” and the “Caribbean”?” (Sanabria, 2005, p. 17).

In recent years, numerous forces have tapped the diversity that is the conceptual world of Latin America described by Sanabria in order to advance their own visions and agendas. From the US creation of Latin American Studies to advance imperialist interests, to diaspora identity politics discourses, to the emergence of Bolivarianismo as the definitive ideology of the new Latin American left, what is and what will be Latin America is a crucial question for many vested interests.

One of the key battlefields of this contest is history, and pre-Columbian history takes on a special significance in particular. Competing narratives of the pre-colonial and colonial eras inform the legitimacy of various political and cultural worldviews. Thus, the renewed interest in accurate histories of these periods provokes controversy. Mann’s work 1491: The Americas Before Columbus is one such history. An excerpt of his work in The Atlantic (2002) with the same title as his book centers on two of his more interesting contributions,  – amalgamations of decades of other  research, fieldwork, and debate, – that (1) pre-colonial indigenous populations were numerous, numbering at least in the tens of millions, and (2) indigenous civilizations molded and crafted the ecology of the continent in monumental and lasting ways.

These contributions are significant, though not necessarily unique. Mann cites numerous other theorists and engages in many intimate interactions with them, before proposing is own synthesis. Sanabria (2005), who’s Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, is intended as a survey text of the discipline, posits many of the same positions as Mann, though in less detail, imply that Mann’s claim that these positions are slowly gaining clout in the mainstream seems to be at least somewhat correct.

Firstly, understanding precolonial populations as vast and numerous helps us conceptualize what exactly colonialism was in a new way. The scale of human suffering and cultural destruction is of holocaust proportions. However, it is my position that Mann’s presentation of the numbers problem is undertheorized. While noting casually the combination of colonial actions and accidental introduction of diseases, Mann fails to analyze how these two forces worked in conjunction to accomplish genocides of indigenous peoples. For example, Mann might note how atrocious working conditions for Aztec slaves in Spanish mines, or the French forceful selling of unsanitized sugar to the Huron, worked to exacerbate plague and epidemic directly in service of colonial economics. In this sense, Mann makes a valuable contribution to a certain extent to our understandings of what happened in colonialism but why it happened is remarkably absent, and worth investigating. Put another way, what anthropologists call power systems and what Marxists call material conditions, is not addressed by Mann. 

Mann’s second contribution is theorized more deeply. The idea that the American continents have been meddled with, often in drastic ways, by human activity for centuries before colonial contact is a controversial one. Mann particularly points out that contemporary environmentalists’ understanding of areas like the Amazon rainforest as untamed and untouched wilderness defies the archaeological evidence; Mann goes so far as to present fieldwork suggesting that the Amazon is itself a creation of human actions, an engineered rainforest created by Inca and Aztec mass-scale landscape planning.

I postulate that this contemporary environmentalist conception, the idea of untamed and untouched preserves, is firmly rooted in terra nullius colonial ideology, a suggestion Mann hints at but does not explicitly come out and say. We can see this reified from North (PETA interventions against Inuit seal hunting) to South (Conservationist support for land grabs in the form of humanitarian purchases of preserves in Brazil). Conservational ideology legitimizes itself by projecting the idea of untouched nature preserves (never mind that by designating a space a “preserve” is, itself an act of human intervention), onto indigenous peoples.

This is especially important to critique in the context of Latin America, where the negotiation of space and place is ongoing, and often dramatic in how it is resolved. We should understand the indigenous impact upon how we understand Latin American space and place as neither reflexively environmentalist, nor trapped in the mythic pre-Colombian process, but as holistic, ongoing, and shaped by the contours of history, culture, and political economy.


HULME, P. (1992). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London, UK: Routledge.

MANN, C. (2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

MIGNOLO, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.

SANABRIA, H. (2005). The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. London, UK: Routledge.

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