Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Review- 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

As a history buff and as someone who finds Amerindians and their culture especially Pre-Columbian Amerindian culture really interesting, I had seen 1491 by Charles C. Mann before and knew that I wanted to read it. I have also recently read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and so looking at cultures prior to the invasion and colonization by Europeans was something I was reading about a lot lately. Mann starts the book with a look at Pizarro's invasion of the Inkas in South America and the interaction among the Amerindians of Massachusetts with the Pilgrims. Each of these looks at the different groups shows a different way in which the Amerindians decided to interact with the explorers and the ways in which these interactions affect the differences in the outcomes for each group. Although each of the Amerindian groups were eventually colonized and killed off, there a vast differences in how this occurred. Where the Inkas were conquered by military force, one of the tribes of Massachusetts made a strategic choice to help the Europeans with the hope that they would align with one group over another. (Unfortunately the book had to go back to the library today and I just finished last night so I no longer have the book and I cannot remember the tribe names right off the top of my head.)

The next sections of 1491 look at how the Amerindians came to America from Asia initially and where the first settled communities might have occurred. There is much controversy on how and when peoples first came to the Americas and where they first settled and Mann goes into much of this controversy, attempting to look at much of what has been written and found as the controversies have developed. This then leads into a discussion of the different groups of peoples in the separate areas of the Americas starting with the Andes, then Mesoamerica, then North America and finally Amazonia. Mann looks at each geographic area, and discusses the different people and settlements that developed there. He looks at not just the major groups that we may think of like the Inkas, the Mayas and the Aztecs, but their predecessors and also how each of these groups developed and then the aftermath of European invasion on these groups. He also discusses the groups of North America such as the Mississippian cultures that developed that I did not know that much about. This was great as I knew about the Amerindian groups of Mesoamerica and the Andes and knew the legends and stories that surrounded Squanto and the other Amerindians that the Pilgrims first encountered, but I did not ever learn about the groups of Amerindians that lived in much of what is now the US owing to the fact that many of them were so ravaged by disease, specifically smallpox, that by the time the explorers met them, they were a shell of their former glory. There are also the images we have of the Plains Indians on horse back, where in fact horses were a European import and that the Plains Indians did not hunt or use horses prior to the European invasion. I knew that horse were imported here from Europe, but I did not know how these societies developed prior to the European invasion.

Mann also looks at the naive idea that the land that was invaded by the Europeans was virgin land, that the Amerindians had no impact on the land or were innocent steward of the land. He looks at the vast changes that Amerindians had on the land from agriculture to the cultivation and breeding of maize which is not a wild species and had to be created by humans to the use of fire to alter the land so that farming and gathering of certain plants could be accomplished by the humans on the land. He also looks at the ideas that the people who were here were not as savage as the Europeans liked to think nor were they as peaceful as we now like to think, the Noble Savage. This changing of the land is also reflected in the final section of the book when he talks about the effects of the mass death of the Amerindians and how that affected the land so much. He discusses that bison may not have been as plentiful as were then seen by explorers and pioneers. That Amerindians competed with bison, mule deer and elk for food like maize, and other herbs and plants so they were pushed to where they were available a few days ride when the Amerindians wanted or needed meat, but were far enough away that they were not eating from the gardens of the humans. This is one of many changes that the geography and plant and animal life went through after the extermination of the Amerindians at the hands of the Europeans.

Overall, this was a very enlightening book and added much to my understanding of the Pre-Columbian Americas and the people who inhabited this land. Mann is not always an unbiased writer, at times scolding present situations where Amerindians are still treated poorly or adding other notes that are not totally unbiased, but as a very liberal individual I didn't mind these biased comments. If you want a purely unbiased commentary you may have to just overlook some of this, but I also didn't find that the commentary was overwhelming and that Mann did a very good job of trying to look at all of the issues involved and the various controversies that have erupted in anthropology surrounding Pre-Columbian America.


Brave Sir Robin said...

I loved this book!!!!

This seems to be a poorly understood (by the mainstream) period in the Americas.

Wonderful book.

FranIAm said...

Oh Boxer, once again we are of similar minds.

I actually had the good fortune to read (translate: lug but worth it) when I went to Peru and Bolivia in late August/early September 2005.

It was fascinating to be reading as I visited Inca ruins and so forth.

I thought it was a great book and I prefer it over Guns, Germs and Steel - although that was a good book too.