starlady: (but it does move)
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

I'm not sure I can even begin to convey the importance and the earth-shattering content of this book. Mann, a science journalist, marshals more than a half-century's worth of research from an astonishing panoply of disciplines to completely overturn every preconception of life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus that is still inculcated even in otherwise decent history textbooks. Thousands of lost cities, millions of people whose lives were cut short by disease, and countless fascinating technologies and cultural practices march through these pages, conjuring a world that is forever lost yet has many lessons to teach people around the world, particularly the descendants of the colonized and colonizers who live together, often uneasily, in the Western Hemisphere.

In fact, my only complaint about this book is that it seems too short--I would happily read Mann's cogent, well-argued and profoundly sympathetic precis of research on every geographical region and society in the Americas, although in practice Mann focuses less on places and peoples than on three big ideas. In the first section, the revelation that millions of people in the Americas died of infections disease in the decades after European contact, so that humanity lost as much as one-fifth of its members during the long sixteenth century. In the second section he looks at two places where civilization arose independently in the Americas--Norte Chico in Peru and the much-better known Mesoamerica, while in the third he looks at native populations' terraforming their environments, both places in which they succeeded brilliantly (i.e. the anthropogenic forests of Amazonia, which too many people erroneously regard as pristine) and in which the societies failed to find effective solutions (i.e. Cahokia, in what is now St. Louis), and at what relevance this new view of pre-Columbian societies means for contemporary environmental debates. The Amazon in particular may be as much part of our cultural heritage as our natural.

Throughout, Mann maintains an evenhanded tone, even when he details the flabbergastingly horrendous views of the many researchers, and many others, who did so much to promote the wrong-headed views of life in the Americas before the Europeans showed up. In a sense, Mann has bigger fish to fry--his account rescues Indians from their usual roles of either children or savages and restores to them full human agency, both in their achievements and in the consequences, positive and negative, of their own decisions. Despite Mann's non-adversarial tone, most of the non-Indian researchers of the old guard come off rather terribly (I mention Alfred Kroeber, the patron saint of Low Counters, who maintained that only about four to six million people lived on both continents when Columbus blundered in, because he is Ursula K. LeGuin's father), guilty of intellectual blindness at best and racism at worst. People like Patricia C. Wrede and Hugh Thomas, by extension, come off horribly, too--they're so wrong they don't even realize that they're wrong, when it wouldn't have taken much to remedy their ignorance. And indeed, though Mann's research is cutting edge, the general outlines of this re-revised picture of life in the Americas before Columbus has been known in most cases at least since the mid-1980s, and some of the "new revelations" were known in the 1940s. Hopefully Mann's book will take its well-deserved place alongside books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as a cornerstone for better understanding human development, and for promulgating a more just history, and a more just future.

Postscript, 10/11/10 -- I think I want to reread Guns, Germs, and Steel again before recommending it so unreservedly, but it is unequivocally an important book for the global approach it takes. There are also some of Mann's concluding points that stick with me daily, in particular his point that 1491 was the last year in which the hemispheres' biodiversity was not intermingled seems to me worth remembering; it ties in with his larger point that so much of what we think of as 'natural' when we look at the landscapes of the Americas is, historically speaking, just as terraformed as Dubai or the Netherlands or some future Moon or Mars.

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