Friday, July 12, 2013
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
A masterpiece of science journalism
In his book 1491, Charles C. Mann challenges long-standing conceptions of the state of pre-Columbian societies in America at the time of European discovery. He asserts that the human population in America was much higher than the history books we all studied in school would lead us to believe. He also attacks the idea that the Indians lived in an idyllic state of complete harmony with nature, preserving the landscape as a perpetual, untouched wilderness. Citing recent scientific and historic evidence, as well as interviews with archaeologists and anthropologists, Mann proposes that much of what we know about Native American civilizations prior to European contact is based upon accounts of early explorers and colonists who witnessed an America already decimated by Old World diseases, which may have killed as many as 90% of the New World’s native inhabitants. Mann provides an excellent summary of recent research that suggests pre-Columbian inhabitants were far more numerous than previously thought. He also stresses that, in contrast to their reputation for having no impact on their environment, the American Indians did in fact manage the natural landscape to a tremendous extent. Their successes and failures in doing so can teach us valuable lessons about sustainable living.
Mann covers a great deal of real estate in this book, hopping from one end of the continent to the other to support his theses. He examines the Spanish conquests of the Inca and the Aztecs in order to emphasize the role that disease played in each conflict. He reaches back as far as the Pleistocene epoch to question the date at which humans first migrated into the Americas, and takes an in-depth look at the debate over the accuracy of the model that proposes the Clovis culture were the first inhabitants of the Americas. On the subject of Native Americans’ effect on the landscape, Mann investigates the fascinating history of maize, a plant bred by native Americans through a remarkable and mysterious feat of genetic manipulation. Other topics Mann covers in this panoramic work are possible reasons for the demise of the Maya, the idea that the Amazon rainforest may be a human-engineered orchard, and the influence of the Haudenosaunee’s egalitarian society on the American concept of liberty and equality.
As in any revisionist history, there is obviously some controversy regarding many of the topics covered in this book, but Mann is no crackpot seeking to capitalize on sensational conspiracy theories. Though he is apparently on the side of the “High Counters”—those who believe that the pre-Columbian American population has been greatly underestimated—his examination of the issues is very thoughtful and well-balanced. He always gives both sides of every debate their due, and if a theory is unproven, he tells you it’s unproven and why. Mann is neither a scientist nor historian, but he is a science journalist with an exceptional talent for presenting incredibly complex arguments to a general audience without insulting their intelligence. When discussing the dating of artifacts, for example, Mann not only tells you they’ve been carbon dated, he explains in three succinct paragraphs what carbon dating is and the brief history of its development, in a way that makes you realize you didn’t understand the process as well as you thought you did. The sheer amount of information he packs between the covers of this book is truly staggering, yet his writing is never boring, always engaging, and immensely thought-provoking.
1491, published in 2005, is easily my favorite nonfiction book of the past decade. Granted, I happen to have an avid interest in the subject matter, but any reader of the sort who subscribes to National Geographic or watches the History Channel will find this book absolutely fascinating.
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