1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
By Charles C. Mann
Alfred Knopf, New York: 2005
The history of American Indians I learned in school--to the extent that I learned anything at all--was so wildly off the mark that I might as well have made it up myself. Not only was it denigrating, condescending and picaresque, it was just plain wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you might think the miseducation was a deliberate part of the conquest.
This massive ignorance continues a century after American Indians were vanquished. Extraterrestrial explanations of Indian ruins are still popular in the 21st century. Our schoolbook ancient history still emphasizes places like Egypt and Mesopotamia, even though we have a perfectly good, rich and fascinating history right here that goes back at least 10,000 years. And the dominant picture of American Indians rarely even allows the possibility that there's more to learn.
As it turns out, there is much more to learn. And a good place to start is with Charles C. Mann's new book. Unless this is your field of study, you're pretty sure to learn something about our newfound knowledge of pre-Columban civilizations in the New World. If you read the science pages of the newspaper, not all Mann's revelations will be wholly new, but his point, driven over and over again, is that European-American culture--both North and South American--is completely, blindly and adamantly ignorant of the continents they acquired.
* The northeast corner of North America--Pilgrim country--had been densely populated, heavily farmed and thoroughly sculpted by its Indian population.
* Before Columbus, the Americas were probably more populous than Europe.
* The uplands of South America, as well as the entire Amazon region, had been the sites of successive and intensive civilizations as advanced and technological as any in the world.
* When Cortez marched into the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, he found himself in a larger, cleaner and more developed city than any in Europe.
* Indian agriculture, especially the breeding and development of maize, often exceeded that of Europe.
To be fair, most of these discoveries have resulted from intensive archaeological work, from DNA and carbon dating techniques, and from new technologies like satellite imagery. But they have also required the development of a more open mind. The question is, will these perceptions remain in the scientific community, or will they make their way into popular culture?
The discoveries Mann writes about enhance the stature and the accomplishments of American Indians, but they sometimes cause problems for progressives. For one thing, it seems very unlikely that the pristine wilderness so favored by many environmentalists ever really existed--at least since the first people arrived. Virgin land is a recent concept, and a problematic one. If these discoveries are validated, then we need to use a paradigm other than an untouched New World.
Moreover, archaeology and DNA research sometimes runs afoul of American Indian activists who have their own vision of pre-Columban society. For instance, is it possible that American Indians were often lousy land managers? Is it possible that Asians, Africans or even Europeans landed in the Americas and mingled with the dominant population? Maybe, maybe not. The evidence of many of the new discoveries is far from unambiguous, and history is constantly being invoked to justify present-day actions. But wherever this new research leads us, it's mercifully away from the bizarre notions of the noble and ignorant savage.
It's likely that further research will overturn some of the conclusions Mann writes about. But he presents a fascinating, if sprawling, look at the wealth of new material, the scientific questions, the political conflicts and the possible cultural consequences of this new work. There's so much in this book that you're sure to find something riveting, jarring or even inspiring.
Washington-based Alec Dubro is a veteran writer and a longtime union activist. He is currently the media coordinator of the International Labor-Communications Association, an allied institute of the AFL-CIO.
Reviewed by Alec Dubro
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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