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Forget what you learned in high school about pre-Columbian America

  • Feb 27, 2006
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Mann's fascinating exploration of pre-Columbian America finds a very different world than the one we learned about in high school - and the one still taught to students today. Rather than a sparsely populated land of stone-age tribes in North America, with a few higher but declining civilizations in South America, Mann describes a thriving mix of technologically adroit cultures with a population possibly larger than Europe's.

As convincing as it is revelatory, science writer Mann's ambitious, accessible book has an advantage over the work of some of the archaeologists whose findings he discusses. A generalist, he's not hamstrung by absorption in his own area of expertise. Over the last 20 years his interest has encompassed not just the work of previous and present archaeologists and anthropologists, but also historians, linguists, biologists, soil experts, horticulturists, virologists, medical researchers, engineers and more.

While there's necessarily a lot of "fill in the gaps" speculation, Mann is careful to cite sources and reasoning as he provides compelling pictures of the Mayans, Aztecs and Inca and the typically scheming, ambitious people who ruled them and fought among themselves. Their downfall, he demonstrates, was not due to the Conquistadors' technological superiority, but the devastation and demoralization of small pox, complicated by their own infighting. Mann makes a convincing case for an even greater disease calamity than traditionally thought, with up to half the population dead in the first epidemic after Columbus' arrival, leaving the population shaken and vulnerable.

North America suffered even greater depopulation from first contact, losing up to 95 percent of its people before the arrival of the early colonists. Mann's eye-popping description of North America totally dismisses the traditional view of a pristine wilderness and posits a carefully maintained landscape of forests, orchards and plains, sculpted and shaped by the indigenous population. If this seems hard to believe, Mann gives two examples of agricultural ingenuity, which make believing a lot easier.

The first is the initial creation of maize. Unlike other staple grain crops such as wheat and barley, maize has no counterpart in nature. And it requires human intervention to reproduce since its seeds are encased in a closed husk. Its closest relative, teosinte, looks nothing like it and is not eaten since it produces so little grain. "In creating modern maize from this unpromising plant, Indians performed a feat so improbable that archaeologists and biologists have argued for decades over how it was achieved."

The second is the rich soil found in portions of the Amazonian rain forest, called terra preta. Most Amazonian soil is naturally poor, but these areas - some of which have maintained their fertility for a millennia - seem clearly manufactured. For one thing, there is no environmental or soil-type pattern to the plots. And, most striking, the rich soil, usually one to two feet deep, is mixed with ancient potsherds.

The Spaniards destroyed what written records they could get their hands on - a vast amount - and Indian conquerors had done the same to their predecessors. The victor's urge to destroy the history and culture of the vanquished seems a universal trait. Still, enough records, particularly in art works, survive to allow Mann to discuss successive civilizations in great detail. He is also careful to cite opposing opinions and conflicting researches, but his views and overarching thesis seem well grounded.

From artificial islands to terraformed forests Mann brings alive a thriving variety of cultures which evolved without outside influence. "Like Europe, it was an extraordinarily diverse place with a shared cultural foundation. But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world."

Mann returns to this reality again and again as he discusses cultures in various parts of the Americas. Scientists have long been baffled that the Inca, a complex urban society, had no writing. Now it seems, though no one has succeeded in deciphering it, that the Inca may have had the world's only three-dimensional writing - bundles of knotted strings.

Or the wheel - Andean cultures used the wheel for toys and because of terrain and the lack of draught animals had little use for it in transportation, but they did not use the wheel to make ceramics or grind maize.

Americans approached other technologies from a different perspective. Rather than the European reliance on compression - the arch, for instance, or the habit of nailing things together, the Inca preferred tension - "the manipulation of fibers." Thus they wove boats and fabulous suspension bridges. The conquistadors ditched their cumbersome metal armor for the Inca's tough quilted cotton as soon as they tried it.

In metallurgy they valued plasticity and malleability over hardness and strength. Though their metalworking was extremely complex, it was used mostly in art.

And in North America, the Haudenosaunee, Mann posits, may have been more responsible for the American Revolution than we care to admit. Their views of individual liberty and social equality are remarkably like ours today and nothing like the monarchical views of Europe. "So accepted now around the world is the idea of the implicit equality and liberty of all people that it is hard to grasp what a profound change in human society it represented."

Mann leaves us with this startling idea - backed up with writings from numerous witnesses, including Jesuits who complained of the Indians' alarming resistance to obedience and " `believe what they please and no more,'" and Ben Franklin who wove their notions of personal liberty into his own thinking.

A wealth of detail and an organized, entertaining presentation make this a page-turner as well as an eye-opener. Copious notes will lead interested readers to further sources. With new technologies - and new interest - more and more sites are being opened and explored (mostly in South America) and readers will look forward to new revelations and theories from Mann as well as others.

--Portsmouth Herald

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More 1491: New Revelations of the A... reviews
review by . December 19, 2005
Charles C. Mann does a masterful job of pulling together contemporary theories of the Americas before Columbus. He does it in an accessible style so even the unsophisticated layperson can enjoy this wonderful exposition.      Much to his credit, Mann does not indulge (at least not to a significant extent) in the current fancy for political correctness. The Americas were not an Eden before the arrival of the Europeans, a fact well-known before revisionism swept academia. Life …
review by . August 21, 2005
"1491" is destined to become a much-debated history of pre-Columbian America. Already being called "revisionist" by some and "revolutionary" by others, it certainly is not "your father's history of Native Americans" (who were called "Indians" by your father's generation, anyway).    Those who complain of scant primary support don't understand historiography of pre-historic history. By it's very nature and name, the historian of such societies much rely on more ancillary research …
review by . August 18, 2005
I was excited about this book for a while, yet, particularly after disappointment with 1421's overblown claims, I was skeptical that its initial claims would be supported by hard evidence. Instead, I found that Mann has clearly done his homework to produce a brilliant book describing the lost chapters of American history.    Mann's (and the researchers he cites) basic argument is clear: conventional history on American Indians is stale, often relying on faulty, static, or even …
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Lynn Harnett ()
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I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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Wiki

1491is not so much the story of a year, as of what that year stands for: the long-debated (and often-dismissed) question of what human civilization in the Americas was like before the Europeans crashed the party. The history books most Americans were (and still are) raised on describe the continents before Columbus as a vast, underused territory, sparsely populated by primitives whose cultures would inevitably bow before the advanced technologies of the Europeans. For decades, though, among the archaeologists, anthropologists, paleolinguists, and others whose discoveries Charles C. Mann brings together in1491, different stories have been emerging. Among the revelations: the first Americans may not have come over the Bering land bridge around 12,000 B.C. but by boat along the Pacific coast 10 or even 20 thousand years earlier; the Americas were a far more urban, more populated, and more technologically advanced region than generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the continents, to the point that even "timeless" natural features like the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention.

Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist stories ...

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Details

ISBN-10: 140004006X
ISBN-13: 978-1400040063
Author: Charles C. Mann
Genre: History
Publisher: Knopf
Date Published: October 10, 2006
First to Review
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