Monday, December 23, 2013

Book review: Charles Mann's 1491

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2011 (2nd edition)
553 pages                   

Everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not a Wounded Knee-type critique, nor is it ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed. And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived,  nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.

Charles Mann's website:

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