Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Book Review: 1491

I’ve only just recently begun reading history books. I’m not sure why it took me this long to begin exploring the world of non-fiction writing; perhaps I just finally got a bit burnt out novels a little bit and needed a break. Most of my historical reading has been focused on ancient and medieval history—areas that have interested me from my high-school years forward. Ancient Rome and Greece provide such a rich backdrop of information and, despite all my studies, medieval Europe was just so darn foreign that I could usually find something in those areas to really get my attention.

The most recent book I’ve finished, however, represents a departure from this pattern, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbusby Charles C. Mann. While not an exhaustive historical study of the Americas before Columbus, it is a nice summary of some of the new thinking that is being coming from archeologists regarding the indigenous societies that existing before Columbus and the accompanying European diseases arrived to the Western Hemisphere in 1492.

Mann is not an historian or archeologist, nor does he pretend to be. He does, however, manage to distill some very complex arguments and controversies into a very readable account of the current state of thought about Indian societies, and how it completely differs from the accounts that most of us were taught in school.

Here are some highlights of the new information that he narrates. This list is not exhaustive, but only some of the more interesting areas to me:
  • One of the earliest civilizations arose independently in Peru, about the same time or only shorter after Sumer in the fertile crescent
  • Maize, which has no apparent genetic precursors may be one of humankinds more important inventions as a product of genetic engineering
  • Disease, notable smallpox, may have killed as many as 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Americas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century—making the Americas much more inhabited that usually thought
There a lot more where that comes from, and while I’m not totally convinced about some of the information he brings to like, it definitely bears thinking about. For example, he posits that the idea of pristine wilderness in pre-Columbian America is a myth—that human beings had left an indelible mark on the landscape and that primeval forests faced by Thoreau and his contemporaries was in fact a result of the depopulation that occurred due to the appearance of the Europeans. I’m not sure I’m totally ready to get rid of my idea of wildness, but I am also comforted that a more complex and subtle view of this continent’s first inhabitants is beginning to gain some ground.

All and all, it was an entertaining read.

NP: "No More Sorry" - My Bloody Valentine

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