I'm fascinated by pre-Columbian American history. A whole alternate human history, right here where we live now, different writing and math and technology. And so little known about it! Science journalist Charles Mann's book 1491 scratched my itch to learn more about New World civilizations. It's intelligent but not too demanding, anthropology-lite in the vein of Guns, Germs, and Steel if not as ambitious.

Mann's book is written to demonstrate his thesis that New World civilizations were way more developed and technological than our common understanding. He neatly dismantles the idea that Indians were a sparsely populated low impact culture living in harmony with Mother Earth, dismissing it as both racist and not supported by science. Instead in the eleven chapters he presents detailed archaeological research about the surprisingly technological Indian civilizations. Some of the ground he covers includes the continuing controversy over the initial migration dates, the astonishingly urban complex of Norte Chico in 3200 BC and its uniquely specialized economy, and an emerging case that the Amazon rainforest is not some wild pristine environment but instead the result of centuries of deliberate gardening by its inhabitants.

The tour of archeology is fun but even better is Mann's explanation about how all of this history is surprising us just now. A big part of our misconception about native peoples' lives is that by the time Europeans met them, 90-98% of them may have died from disease. I'd understood before how smallpox, etc helped the Europeans conquer the New World but I never quite connected our romantic idea of sparse Indian settlements to the fact that, duh, almost all of the people living in the Americas died 1492-1550. He also talks in some detail about the relative lack of physical artifacts from cultures that tended to build with soft, perishable materials. And of course there's also the willful, deliberate destruction of all written records by evil Catholic bishops and the like.

If I have a complaint about 1491, it's that when I finished reading it I have an even less clear picture of pre-Columbian history than I did before reading it. The simple schoolboy story is a simple narrative. Now that I've learned more specifics about particular examples the big picture has gone fuzzy. Which may very well be fair and accurate now, given how little we know.

  2010-01-04 23:05 Z