1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbusby Published 10 Oct 2006
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A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.
Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’s landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed mainly in small, nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last thirty years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.
In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions. Among them:
In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
Certain cities–such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital–were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as "man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering."
Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it–a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.
Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" by human beings.
Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation.
"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" Reviews
In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.
Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness. This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix "savage" with "noble," because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.
He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:
1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought (i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off)
2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts
3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural world
On the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes. However, there were a number of things that set me off, most of them centering around my suspicion that Mann was trying harder to convince than reveal. Maybe this stems from his journalistic rather than academic background, but I constantly felt cajoled when what I wanted to feel was "of course!"
First of all there was the general lack of methods. Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a result of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived. To his credit, Mann touches on it, but he treats the issue of error as a sort of footnote, noting one scientist who thinks the degree of error makes the numbers meaningless. Throughout the book I found myself asking, "But how do we know that?" and was generally disappointed by the number and quality of the citations (sources often include interviews, personal communication, and secondary sources that themselves lack citation).
To provide another example, on p. 234 he describes how Olmecs deformed the pliant skulls of their infants to make them look a certain way... only to admit archaeologists only assume they did this based on their artwork. No ellipsis can adequately contain my stupefaction at the absurdity of that claim. Have you seen Mesoamerican artwork? Have you seen any human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe? Not exactly the height of realism. Perusing his source, it seems that the figurines looked deformed, and intentional deformation was apparently documented elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but the citation trail goes Spanish there, so I'm lost. If there were first-hand accounts of similar practices, you need to describe them. In the text. Because shaping baby skulls is WEIRD by our standards.
There were other portions that just seemed irrational and/or unscientific. His attempt to equate human sacrifice among the Mexica (aka Aztecs) and 17th century executions in Britain was a bit ridiculous, as fellow Goodreads user Stefan pointed out (p. 134). On p. 172 he actually describes error ranges for carbon dating as "typographical clutter" [muffled howl of rage]. On p. 291 he writes, "Indians [...] began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast." He cites Krummer (an Atlantic Monthly article about chestnut restoration) and himself, neither of which mention Indian planting. You get the picture.
Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general sense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer. Two back-to-back quotes sum this up nicely:
"The complexity of a society's technology has little to do with its level of social complexity–something that we, in our era of rapidly changing seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping." (p. 250)
"But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world." (p. 251)
The sagacity of the former idea and the absurd implication that cultural and technological interchange in Eurasia was both one-way and morally wrong perfectly describe 2/3 of the Ueda-Mann Venn diagram.
But like I said, on the whole pretty good. I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the founding of the United States super intriguing, worth books of their own. Maybe that's where he's going with 1493.
prelapsarian (adj): before the Fall of Man. Talkin' Bilbical here. (p. 14)
telluric (adj): terrestrial, pertaining to soil. (p. 80)
statrapies (n): in this context, leaders (or states?) that act primarily in response to larger political entities. (p. 138)
fissiparous (adj): tending to fall apart / separate. (p. 373)
Fascinating exploration of what we know of the "New World" before Columbus arrived. I knew pretty much nothing about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before. It's also an interesting survey of these societies and their environments, of how the Indians and the "pristine" environments are a bit of a myth. The scope of the book covers so many different culture, puts everything into a context I never imagined before.
The author obviously loves what he does, and relishes research and it definitely makes potentially dry material come to life. Opened my eyes to a subject I knew nothing about, so I highly recommend!!!!
Confession: I never finished this, leaving about 50 pages (about 15%)on the table. With non-fiction books that are based around a particular theory I feel like as long as I read enough to internalize the argument and really understand some of the evidence I can stop reading when I get bored. If I missed some revelation on page 420 somebody let me know.
The key takeaway here: American societies were almost certainly older, larger, more technically advanced and more complex than they are given credit for. While this is basically a no brainer for most of us, actually reading all of the evidence and the history of the discovery is really interesting.
Another takeaway: Archeology is NOT an exact science. In fact, it seems to basically consist of making a discovery and then claiming your discovery is unimpeachable fact until someone else discovers something older that makes your discovery obsolete. Its like a crappy metaphor for life.
Finally: Interesting factoid. It seems like no one can come to a consensus on how corn originated as a crop. The genetic ancestors of the plant are so small and nutrient deficient that they cant figure out how the South Americans managed to cultivate it into the powerful food staple it is today. Probably alien intervention if you ask me..
This book could be good. Unfortunately the author seems determined in every part of his "research" to interject his own opinion without duly backing it up. I stopped reading it somewhere around page 100, where the author makes the comparison between ritual human sacrifice by the Aztecs and executions in European countries. By taking the executions in England for a 100 year period, then adjusting for the size of the English population compared to the estimated possible population of the Aztecs, and comparing that yearly execution total with what Cortez estimated, Mann concludes that Europeans were more bloodthirsty. Despite my issues with the math behind these comparisons, I'm still left wondering what Mann's point is.
That becomes my issue with the book. Mann presents a lot of good factual arguments, but then includes hints of his own opinions that don't really contribute to Mann's argument that New World cultures surpass what has been previously estimated, assumed, and ingrained into our own culture.
Let me start by noting that Mann is a journalist, rather than a historian or cultural anthropologist. This results in a work that is extremely accessible to the non specialist reader and lacking in jargon.
So much of our notions of what North America was like before Europeans arrived are the result of our own impact on the continent. The notion of an empty continent populated by either "noble savages" or aborigines comes from the fact that the population was decimated by western diseases within a 100 years of our arrival.
Mann shows that Native American cultures were highly civilized and complex, with enormous centers of population and highly organized agricultural and political societies. He shows that when Europeans came to North America, they were not seeing a "state of nature" but rather a continent that had already been significantly changed by the agricultural practices of its inhabitants.
We tend to think of small villages of teepees or cave dwellings. But Mann shows that the populations of the America were equivalent to those of Europe in 1500, and that there were large, organized communiteis throughout the continent. Some of the largest of these, such as the cities of the mound people of the plains, or Tenochtitlan in South America, were enormous in scale, and highly civilized.
There was so much here before we arrived, and its important to remember this.