Charles C. Mann, 1491

If you're not much of a reader, or if you'd rather not read about history, there's an alternative to reading Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus -- you could watch yourself some seriously funny 1491s, and find a way to genuinely get what they're doing. (Maybe some Twilight Indian auditions?)

But if you don't read Mann's 1491, well, unless you're an active researcher in the academic fields Mann touches on, you'll never properly understand the Americas, or Indians / First Nations / what have you, or cultural evolution, or human history. Quite simply, I just can't think of another book that comes close to the significance of this one, appearing at this particular time. (Plus it's kind of a fun read, full of interesting stories and cool details and "trick the reader" plot twists: doubly recommendable!)

The gist: when Mann's child entered high school, Mann was dismayed to learn that textbooks about the history of the Americas hadn't really changed since he'd been there himself, 30 years before. History being the past, maybe you think that's okay, but in fact Mann knew that the academic understanding of the Americas had undergone almost unimaginable change over the last few decades. Disappointed, but no doubt excited as well, Mann felt he had no choice but to write the damned book he'd hoped someone with actual expertise would write, just as soon as he developed enough of his own expertise not to look like an idiot (cough *Jared Diamond* cough).

The new understandings are startling, if you were raised on the standard narrative of exploration and conquest by European adventurers (hero or ruffian, makes no difference). The world has never been what you were told it was, Westerner.

Moray, a 15th-century Inka agricultural laboratory

For one thing, you've got stop thinking of Europe as the perennial urbane sophisticate. At several times before 1491, the largest and most culturally complex city in the world was in South America: several different cities, in fact, were at different times larger than Rome or Paris or any other urbanity on the planet.

More than that, the "New World" could in every meaningful way be more accurately called the "Old World." Recent research in Chile suggests that some version of civil society was functioning there long before Europe got rolling: "the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago," and more than that, Britain "was empty until about 12,500 BC, because it was still covered by glaciers." In Mann's words, "people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works" (p.196).

To take one example I found especially profound, in a region of Bolivia called Beni, large earthworks have only quite recently been recognized. The region is a large plain, prone to long-term and severe floods, but it turns out to be honeycombed with causeways and mounds up to 60 feet high, from a civilization that lived there for about two thousand years, from something like 3000 BC to 1000 BC. The mounds, amazingly, are composed primarily of ceramic pot sherds: archaeologists think that these people may have made huge volumes of ceramics specifically to shatter them in order to construct stable, durable mounds above the flood plain.

(And if you want to scoff at that, remember rebar: we mine assorted ores, melt them, then encase them in concrete to form walls. Is it any different?)

Written language began developing in the Americas, only to be short-circuited and destroyed during the early years of Spanish invasion. In Amazonia, the naturally poor soil was being changed through human intervention into incredibly rich, fertile ground, such that we should think of the mammoth Amazonian rainforest as a human artifact, basically a huge orchard: these people "were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything" (p.359).

Chan Chan, Peru: 10,000 15th-century buildings
You know how exploration in the Americas proceeded in large part on the basis of terra nullius, that the land was empty? While researchers remain somewhat divided, it's now widely accepted that there were probably in the order of forty million people living in the Americas before European contact -- some say many more than that. As for the idea that superior military might (tactics, weapons, horses) led to the conquest of the Americas, in fact disease did almost all the necessary work: the low estimates propose that around 80% of the Americas' population died of new diseases within 200 years of contact, and the high estimates are over 90%.

I could go on bludgeoning you with facts, but I'll stop here. Read the thing, okay, please?!?

This is a book I'm going to reread regularly over the coming years, because frankly its lessons are ones I need to internalize. I'll say it again: the world isn't what we learned it was, period. 1491 is a crucial text in communicating to a wider audience the giant falsehoods and crimes that underpin the myth of Western civilization.


Melwyk said…
Wow, I'm sold! You make a very strong case for the necessity of reading this. I've always been interested in the pre-Columbus Americas, so this is a must read.
richard said…
Definitely a must-read: the more you already know, the less news it'll be to you, but it's pretty great to see gathered in one place so much of the last few decades of research.

Mind you, I'm assuming that First Nations readers are like, "You are just figuring this out NOW?".

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