Review

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

by Charles C. Mann



A more appropriate subtitle for this iconoclastic book might be:
"Everything you thought you knew about Pre-Columbian America is
(probably) wrong."


Charles Mann is not himself an archeologist, anthropologist or
geographer; he is a science writer with impressive credentials. He
obviously is also an industrious fellow who has traveled widely,
interviewed everyone he could find who seemed to matter, and
burrowed conscientiously through a mountain of technical
literature.


His intent in this book is to demolish the idea that America before
Columbus was a howling wilderness thinly populated by
inconsequential native people who can safely be ignored by
historians. The general consensus among scholars today is that
America had hosted a good number of highly advanced civilizations
long before Columbus appeared and that its population when he did
show up was equal to or greater than that of the Europe from whence
he had sailed. One estimate put it in the "tens of millions."


The scope of this book's vision is wide, ranging from the coast of
Massachusetts to the heights of the Andes and the Amazon rain
forest. This gives it a rich underpinning of history, legend and
scholarship; it also gives it a loose and blurry focus as Mann's
argument moves abruptly from upland Peru to Massachusetts and from
the Mississippi flood plain opposite Saint Louis to ancient
Mexico.


The reader learns quite quickly that very little about this vast
subject can be pinned down with certainty. Every theory that has
been advanced seems to have generated a counter-theory --- and Mann
shows that scientific types are as capable as ward-heeler
politicians of nasty public invective and personal attacks on each
other. He seems almost to take delight in detailing their catfights
and hair-pulling matches.


Another lesson the lay reader takes from this book is the vast
sweep of geological time. Mann writes of the rise and fall of
empires over a span of perhaps 20 millennia. If two experts come
within a century or so of dating a certain event or shard of
pottery, the assumption is that they agree with each other.
Population movements and geological events that took place over 200
or 300 years are called "abrupt." It makes the modern reader
suddenly aware of how small we bulk on the cosmic scale of
time.


Even with these cautions, Mann's book is full of fascinating tales
of places like the great Inca city of Tenochtitlan --- in its
heyday, it was larger than Paris --- and Tawantinsuyu on the shore
of Lake Titicaca in the high Andes, a marvel of architecture and
economic prosperity. Closer to home he writes enthrallingly about
the Plymouth Colony and about the great settlement at what is now
Cahokia, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from modern-day
Saint Louis. Cahokia, once the largest settlement north of the Rio
Grande and a center of trade and government, is today a tiny place
of interest only to archeologists.


Mann ranges across agriculture, government, warfare, economics and
population movement in his broad-gauge survey of two continents and
the historically rich Central American isthmus that connects them.
Variations in religious beliefs and practices loom especially
large.


His prose is lively enough, but it can get highly technical, and he
does have a tendency to get bogged down in the minutiae of some of
his subjects. His discussions of agriculture, for example, will
daunt readers who are not comfortable with terms like
"mitochondrial haplogroups." Elsewhere one must deal with terms
like glyptodonts, caliche and zoonotic.


At the very end of his book Mann confronts the clash between
environmentalists and developers, a theme that has lurked in the
background of much of his text. He sees this endless controversy as
a clash between two conflicting philosophical principles:
nomos (rationality, artifice) and physis
(irrationality, nature). He comes down tentatively and without much
conviction somewhere in the middle. We have to accept the need to
bring order to nature, but at the same time we must respect the
rights and historical accomplishments of native peoples, who were
anything but the ignorant savages we heard about in school. Our
learned tour guide seems unwilling to choose sides.


This is disappointing --- but we cannot deny that we have learned a
lot from him in the course of this long and difficult journey
through time.


   






















Reviewed by Robert Finn on December 22, 2010

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2006
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 541 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400032059
  • ISBN-13: 9781400032051