1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.
Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.
Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.
Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.
That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.
Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.
But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.
(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)