Vicki Seldon's Reviews > 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 by Charles C. Mann
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message 1: by Valerie (new)

Valerie ?'New revelations'? From where? I don't know of any new trove of documentation recently uncovered. I suspect any such book would be a collation, collecting together things that have been known for many years in some communities, and which just haven't made it into common knowledge.

There is SOME new evidence, I know. For example, NASA surveys have documented that what has been rainforest for several centuries was open farmland and heavily urbanized/village lands during the height of the Mayan empire. But the Mayan empire was almost completely defunct by 1491, and rainforest had recolonized the area by that time.

I would examine the bibliography of this book very carefully. I know something about the assumptions and statistical problems with a lot of this research, and would be very cautious about accepting any categorical assertions.

message 2: by Vicki (new) - added it

Vicki Seldon Both of these books 1491 and 1493 were written by a long-time journalist, not a scholar. He pulls together and freely acknowledges prominent historians, archaeologists and others in the field. These are books for the general reader interested in history, not books aimed at the scholarly audience. NPR's fresh air did an interview with the author just last week which is why I added both books to my list. Thank God for authors such as Tuchman, Schama, Shirer, and others who are writing on historical topics for the general public! You are right - such things haven't become common knowledge. That doesn't necessarily nullify what the books have to offer.

message 3: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Well, except for one thing. Why HAVEN'T these things become common knowledge? They're not exactly the shibboleths of secret societies.

Stephen Jay Gould often used to blame the writers and commissioners of textbooks for the distorted versions of histories, the sciences, etc we're taught as children. There's something in that, of course. Why should subject experts feel it's degrading to write popularly accessible versions of their researches? Gould himself went to quite a bit of effort to write books that were as jargon-free as possible without 'dumbing down', or oversimplifying complex concepts. And others have done as well. Yet too many subject experts seem to think that they can't be accurate without tons of equations and technical terms, and too many members of the public disavow any capacity to understand 'that science stuff'.

If these versions do present what's often generally known in professional circles in readable form, it's a promising start; and if it becomes part of a trend to bring things like the works of Bartolome de Las Casas to the general public, it's better yet.

One of the best products of the 19th century was the chautauquas: public lectures by subject experts, reporters, etc, traveling around and providing access to complex subjects to the ordinary populace. Until recently there was SOME access on television to this sort of thing (PBS, mostly), but it has been sucked dry in late years.

I had a lucky break, I'd say, in that my maternal grandmother lived only a few miles away from the Koster site, which was an excavation from what had been a major urban area on the Illinois River for centuries. Although there are big cities within less than a day's travel away at present (St Louis is probably the largest), there're no major population centers in the immediate area anymore. Northwestern University has set up their archaeological field school in 'the buried gardens of Kampsville', and it was there that I first encountered people who were very good storytellers as well as scholars and scientists. But I never would have heard of the place, if not for my grandmother.

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