Charles C. Mann04 Feb '07 - 13:22 by
Interview with the American journalist and author Charles C. Mann.
Interview with Charles Mann about his latest book
Amazon.com1491 is 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 in 1491, 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 are among the best-founded: the stories of early American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly, encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained for centuries before. --Tom Nissley
171 of 180 people found the following review helpful: An excellent update on the current academic understanding of pre-Columbian America Reviewer:
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Although recent years have yielded significant progress in understanding how "Indians" lived throughout the Americas before 1492 and Columbus, only isolated bits of the story have reached the popular press. Far too many people still hold to one of two myths of the Indians, or have little conception at all of pre-Columbian America. The first popular myth is that the Indians were a bunch of primitive savages just keeping the land warm until superior Europeans showed up. It's sad to read reviews here that assert that because Indians used stone tools they were therefore "stone age", with the implication that their culture was no further advanced than that early period. The second myth makes the Indians into proto-flower-children, naively and simply in tune with their environment. Both myths are based on stereotyping and are condescending to the pre-Colombians. How could people spread over two continents and many millennia be briefly summarized? They can't be! The Americas saw the development of a broad range of cultures, just like every other inhabited area of the world. Some cultures overstressed their environment and soon collapsed. Others created stable conditions under which they could survive for generations. (Which is not the same as saying they didn't impact nature.) But even the latter could be brought down by climate change, political instability, disease (especially European), or contact with outsiders (Indian or European). Great cities arose in mesoamerica and the Andes, and also in other areas when the right conditions prevailed. And sophisticated cultures existed even where city building wasn't favored. This book takes the reader through a vibrant overview of centuries of Indian culture both before and shortly after Columbus landed. Much of the narrative is based on work-in-progress by archaeologists and historians, and will certainly become dated with time, but it is an important update to the common, current understanding of the subject. For those not enthralled by one of the myths I mention above, most Americans recall our history along the lines of Scene 1: The Pilgrims land and encounter Indians who teach them how to grow corn; they then have a big Thanksgiving party together. Scene 2: Americans moving inland encounter savage Indians who need to be exterminated or moved to reservations to make the continent safe for manifest destiny. Scene 3: The few remaining Indians are victims of brutal European suppression, and we need to buy jewelry and pottery from them to make ourselves feel better about the situation. This book is a welcome update to our thinking about the Americas before Columbus. It's also one of the best books I've read in long time, and I highly recommend it.
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