29 September 2011

1491 (Charles C. Mann)

I think I've previously mentioned my father as the most well-read amateur historian I know--most of my knowledge of topics like the Napoleonic wars or the Schlieffen Plan comes from his pleasantly pedantic dinner-table conversation. So when he told me that Charles Mann's 1491 was "one of the most interesting books I've read in years" (enough that he sought out an indie bookstore on vacation in order to purchase the sequel, 1493, on its release date), I had to sit up and take notice.

Indeed, 1491 is a grade-A buttonholer, a book that makes you want to grab people on the street and cry, "Did you know this?" It's a distillation of decades of research by historians, linguists, archaeologists, even molecular biologists, all revising previous notions of the pre-Columbian Americas as sparsely populated by simple societies frozen in time, wielding no power over their environment--whether these natives celebrated as Noble Savages or disparaged as brutes, this version of their lives is familiar from textbooks and entertainment alike.

Except it might all be wrong.

From the Inka to the Amazon, the Wampanoag (who greeted the Pilgrims) to the Haudenosaunee (usually called the Iroquois), Mann argues that Indian cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere were large, technologically savvy, and above all, shapers of the landscape. They bred maize into a staple food of the world, understood the power of the controlled burn (still practiced in prairie ecosystems like western Kansas), even diverted rivers to irrigate crops. All this knowledge and more was lost in perhaps the greatest tragedy of human history: the genetic susceptibility of the inhabitants of the New World to the diseases of the Old, which some scientists now believe may have killed 90% of American indigenes, throwing their world into cultural and ecological chaos.

Mann covers an amazing amount of ground, untangling dissenting viewpoints, detailing academic rivalries of shocking vehemence, and upending mainstream beliefs on almost every page. The narrative is not always smooth--no one will praise 1491 as reading like a novel--but the information is so revelatory as to make it a page-turner nevertheless. It's to be hoped that the work of the tireless scholars he chronicles filters into our laymen's consciousness sooner rather than later.

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