1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus
© 2005 Charles C. Mann
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is an ambitious book that attempts to rout a host of assumptions about the land and people of the western hemisphere prior to European contact. Author Charles Mann tackles a host of questions and beliefs, but most find their root in the idea that primitivism reigned supreme in the Americas — that both the land and people were largely untouched by the passage of time until European exposure. Mann wishes to overturn the related ideas that the western hemisphere contain lands largely untouched by humanity and that the people who lived here were relatively uncivilized, not far removed from hunting and gathering. In their place, he sees the Americas as continents heavily modified by their original occupants, densely populated, home to many more than the traditional “big three” organized polities. These polities were not just familial clans, but empires in their own rights with political dramas and ambitions that unfolded exactly as they might in Europe, China, or anywhere else. Essentially, Mann sees the original Americans as humans — not idealized ‘noble savages‘ or ridiculed primitives.
To be sure, the civilizations of the Americas were limited in some respects compared to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Without draft animals, people were unable to engage in the large-scale agriculture that almost defines the western idea of civilization. Mann’s account how people adapted to the environments of the Americas reminded me a quotation from an introduction to anthropology: people have found many ways to be human. Time and again, Mann makes the case that pre-European Americans were not strictly primitive, but that their history had simply developed differently from people living in the eastern hemisphere. They couldn’t farm in the way of the east, but they manipulated their environments all the same — creating large, wild orchards in the Amazon and fish-trapping on a massive scale that required large public works.Technologically, their path simply diverged again. Metalworking in Mesoamerica, for instance, was as advanced as anywhere else, but it was put to different uses — as elaborate ornamentation instead of weaponry. The same was true of science, and Mann attempts to convince the reader that both European and American scientific progress had strengths and weaknesses compared to the other.
This is a fascinating work with massive scope, reminding me of Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs, and Steel. Human history abounds here, but science — particularly genetics and climatology — have large parts to play. Mann sees the collapse of the Incan and Aztec empires as owing more to European disease and a relatively limited gene pool among American progenitors than to European weaponry. Interestingly, Mann’s narrative often includes his first-hand documentation. He records his experiences in gathering evidence, exposing himself to both wonders and perils. At one point in the work, the airplane he is in runs out of gas above South American jungle and he barely avoids catastrophe. (My Tuesday Teaser referenced another peril.)
1491 was well worth the time spent reading it, being endlessly fascinating. Mann presents a compelling and simple case, one I’m only happy to recommend — particularly to history, geography, and anthropology readers. I can’t imagine Jared Diamond readers in particular not enjoying this.