Ken-ichi's Reviews > 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 by Charles C. Mann
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Nov 28, 2007

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bookshelves: learning, history
Read from June 30 to August 01, 2011

In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.

Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness. This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix "savage" with "noble," because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.

He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:

1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought (i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off)

2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts

3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural world

On the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes. However, there were a number of things that set me off, most of them centering around my suspicion that Mann was trying harder to convince than reveal. Maybe this stems from his journalistic rather than academic background, but I constantly felt cajoled when what I wanted to feel was "of course!"

First of all there was the general lack of methods. Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a result of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived. To his credit, Mann touches on it, but he treats the issue of error as a sort of footnote, noting one scientist who thinks the degree of error makes the numbers meaningless. Throughout the book I found myself asking, "But how do we know that?" and was generally disappointed by the number and quality of the citations (sources often include interviews, personal communication, and secondary sources that themselves lack citation).

To provide another example, on p. 234 he describes how Olmecs deformed the pliant skulls of their infants to make them look a certain way... only to admit archaeologists only assume they did this based on their artwork. No ellipsis can adequately contain my stupefaction at the absurdity of that claim. Have you seen Mesoamerican artwork? Have you seen any human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe? Not exactly the height of realism. Perusing his source, it seems that the figurines looked deformed, and intentional deformation was apparently documented elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but the citation trail goes Spanish there, so I'm lost. If there were first-hand accounts of similar practices, you need to describe them. In the text. Because shaping baby skulls is WEIRD by our standards.


There were other portions that just seemed irrational and/or unscientific. His attempt to equate human sacrifice among the Mexica (aka Aztecs) and 17th century executions in Britain was a bit ridiculous, as fellow Goodreads user Stefan pointed out (p. 134). On p. 172 he actually describes error ranges for carbon dating as "typographical clutter" [muffled howl of rage]. On p. 291 he writes, "Indians [...] began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast." He cites Krummer (an Atlantic Monthly article about chestnut restoration) and himself, neither of which mention Indian planting. You get the picture.


Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general sense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer. Two back-to-back quotes sum this up nicely:

"The complexity of a society's technology has little to do with its level of social complexity–something that we, in our era of rapidly changing seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping." (p. 250)

"But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world." (p. 251)

The sagacity of the former idea and the absurd implication that cultural and technological interchange in Eurasia was both one-way and morally wrong perfectly describe 2/3 of the Ueda-Mann Venn diagram.


But like I said, on the whole pretty good. I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the founding of the United States super intriguing, worth books of their own. Maybe that's where he's going with 1493.


Words

prelapsarian (adj): before the Fall of Man. Talkin' Bilbical here. (p. 14)
telluric (adj): terrestrial, pertaining to soil. (p. 80)
statrapies (n): in this context, leaders (or states?) that act primarily in response to larger political entities. (p. 138)
fissiparous (adj): tending to fall apart / separate. (p. 373)
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Reading Progress

07/01/2011 page 30
5.0% "Good so far, with Crononian citation density. Still waiting for better description of evidence behind counter-claims, though."
07/05/2011 page 98
18.0% "Back in Jared Diamond territory here. Not sure why Guns, Germs, and Steel hasn't been directly cited yet. Maybe it was itself derivative?" 3 comments
07/11/2011 page 205
37.0% "Hm, sleep or history? History it is, I guess."
07/15/2011 page 257
46.0% "Too many Central American cultures! Nice to re-encounter my old pals 8-Deer and 4-Wind, though (you all remember Understanding Comics, right?)"
03/10/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Raymond (new)

Raymond Yee Are you planning to read Charles Mann's new book 1493?


Ken-ichi Probably. It definitely looks interesting.


message 3: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie W Great review. The persuasion is a bit of a turnoff, but I might have to pick this up in the near future anyway


message 4: by Stella (new)

Stella You are so smart, Mick


Jerome Ken-ichi, excellent review! Do you know of a more scholarly/rigorous book on the same general topic? Would love a recommendation.


Ken-ichi Not yet, though I have not read widely in this (or any other) field. Frankly, the more I read history targeted at a general audience, the more I think Mann was actually pretty rigorous by the standards of his peers, including the actual historians, who often seem to throw explanatory rigor into the wind when they try to tackle giant topics for a lay audience. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England is an exception that deals with similar issues and has enough nerdy citations to set my mind at ease, but it's scope is somewhat narrower.


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