I don’t like to rave about a book when I’m barely through 1/4th, but 1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is wonderful, both in its delivery and content. Charles Mann lays out his scope and focal points, but the overall theme is simple, yet compelling–native Americans were not stone age peoples. The native Americans in the Western hemisphere were not ignorant peoples who didn’t have the technology to take advantage of the natural resources, and neither were they ‘noble savages’ who left the environment pure and untouched. Instead, we have recent evidence that the American natives had not been here before the Clovis people but had very large populations that often created technologically complex urban and farming areas.
Mann uses recent research to create this summary analysis, but he acknowledges that some of it is tenuous and speculative, even giving time to critics of the research. Without going into the gory empirical details, his summary of this research highlights the plausibility of these theories. But he is mindful of the easy explanation. For example, when talking about the disappearance of people like the Maya, he is hesitant to accept the explanation of mega-Nino events as the sole influence, noting that the mini-ice age in Europe didn’t have have permanent cultural or political effects.
Some of this research I’ve read about elsewhere, such as the argument that the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere preceded the Clovis settlement by thousands of years, but to read a coherent summary of several such discoveries and theories is a new, learning experience in itself.
Also, he notes some mistakes in previous interpretations and analyses of Native American cultures, but the book does not come across as anti-Anglo, anti-capitalist, or anti-western culture fare, not unless you include any kind of critique as such. For the most part, this has been a very positive read, one that says, yes, earlier historians and anthropologists erroneously judged these cultures based on partial facts and poor assumptions. But more than anything, it notes that new sources of data as well as fresh perspectives [sometimes literally new perspectives, such as looking from above rather than ground-level] give us new insights and accounts of what these cultures actually did. Yet, some are so fervent in their search for ‘political correctness’ that they’ll dismiss this book.
One criticism that I have of the book is that it lacks more meaty support for some of the conclusions. Yet, the more academic references are there for our inspection. A book such as this shouldn’t be accepted as true on its face. I think its effect, however, is nonetheless valid, that accepted ‘knowledge’ can be wrong. I’m reminded of Black Athena, a book that relied on some creative interpretation and research to make two points–that Greek culture derived from Africa and that many 19th century Greek historians were racists. Bernal’s book ignited debates throughout the 90s as well as a re-examination of the data and claims of ancient Greek research. As a graduate student at the time who dabbled in ancient Greek thought, I appreciated the debate, even though I did not accept Bernal’s assertions completely.
Likewise, I believe that traditional accounts of Native American culture have been cultivated out of biased soil, and we should rightfully re-examine those accounts, especially with new evidence. We’ve done so with theories about dinosaurs, moving from the idea that they were slow-moving reptiles to the now often accepted theory that many were quick creatures with more in common with birds.