Monday, October 15, 2007
For anyone who thinks that the "New World" was a barely populated, illiterate backwater which benefited greatly from the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans, you need to read this book. Charles C. Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus shows that the common beliefs about American "Indians" is hardly accurate.

Compared to many contemporary European societies, those in the Americas were, in fact, far more advanced in a number of areas including mathematics and astronomy which evolved (along with the concept of government and writing) independent of the same knowledge in the Middle East. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (located on the site of present day Mexico city) was larger than any city in Europe with huge canals, markets stuffed with goods from hundreds of miles away, aqueducts providing water to the city, botanical gardens and clean streets (compared to the sewage filled streets of Paris - the largest European city at the time). The independent rise of agriculture in the Americas led to a far more nutritionally complete diet than that of the "more advanced" Europeans who arrived on it's shores, many of whom were in fact malnourished and on the brink of starvation when they landed.

Mann's book covered a lot of information of which I was already aware due to my academic background. However, he's included a lot of current research being done in Paleo-Indian archaeology as well as work on the larger, more recent American cultures. What I found more fascinating though was the look at the lesser well known groups within the Americas. We always hear about the great empires - the Inka, "Aztecs", Mayans, etc. but we rarely are told (or taught) anything about their predecessors. How many of us know anything about the Indians who lived in the Beni region of Brazil? Or the Nauset or Massachusett Indians of what is now New England? Granted much of the research is fairly new but school textbooks are still grossly out of date when it comes to even general knowledge about the Americas pre-contact/conquest.

Something else I appreciated (again, which might not appeal to everyone else) was the changes over the past two centuries in archaeological/anthropological theory. In university I took an entire class in the topic but Mann gives it a personal touch, highlighting not only the generally accepted views by those in these fields but how new discoveries affect the status quo, personality conflicts and feuds between opposing factions within the disciplines. I was in university when Tom Dillehay published the second volume of his work on the Chilean site of Monte Verde in 1997. It caused a bit of a stir in our department, especially when a group of top researches in this field confirmed his research.

I literally could not put this book down and even avoided walking home from work just so that I could get in some extra reading time on the bus. While the subject matter isn't for everyone and, at times, the general reader might be lost with some of the information that Mann presents them with, I highly recommended it.


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