Wednesday, March 12, 2008

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Author: Charles C. Mann
Publisher: Knopf Publication date: 2005

"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a 2005 non-fiction book by American author Charles C. Mann about the pre-Columbian Americas. The book argues that there is evidence accumulated over the last several decades suggesting that human populations in the Western Hemisphere - that is, the indigenous peoples of the Americas - were larger in number, had arrived earlier, were more sophisticated culturally, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape to a greater extent than had been previously thought.

An indicative map of the prominent political entities extant in the Western Hemisphere c. 1491 C.E., as presented in 1491.

Book summary:
"The past 140 years have seen scientific revolutions in many fields, including demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image analysis, palynology, molecular biology, and soil science. As new evidence has accumulated, long-standing views about the pre-Columbian world have been challenged and reexamined. Although there is no consensus, and Mann acknowledges controversies, Mann asserts that the general trend among scientists is to acknowledge that
(a) the population levels were probably higher than traditionally believed among scientists and closer to the number estimated by "high counters"; (b) humans probably arrived in the Americas earlier than thought over the course of multiple waves of migration to the New World (not solely by the Bering land bridge over a relatively short period of time);

(c) The level of cultural advancement and settlement range was higher and broader than previously imagined; and
The New World was largely not a wilderness but an environment controlled by humans (mostly with fire).

These three main foci (origins/population, culture, environment) form the basis for three parts of the book.

Mann was inspired to write this book because he was taught in high school that "Indians came across the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago, that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remain mostly wilderness." He examines what he terms "Holmberg's mistake", named for the anthropologist Allan R. Holmberg, who lived among the Siriono in the 1940s and came to the conclusion that they were the most "culturally backward peoples" in the world. Mann writes that Holmberg's theory was in fact a mistake, because smallpox and influenza devastated Siriono villages during the 1920s, and the Siriono were the "persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture."

Part One: Numbers From Nowhere

Mann first tackles New England in the 1600s, and the idea that European technologies were superior to Indian technologies. Guns were a prime example, as they were seen by Indians as nothing more than "noisemakers," and they were difficult to aim. Famous colonist John Smith even noted that "the awful could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly." Indian technology was actually more impressive, such as the moccasin, which was far more comfortable and sturdy than the boots Europeans wore, and were actually preferred by most of them during that era because its padding offered a much more silent approach to warfare. Canoes are also a prime example that disproves the myth of superior technology of the Europeans. The canoes made by Indians were faster and more maneuverable than any small European boats...

...Mann concludes that Indians were a "keystone species," one that "affects the survival and abundance of many other species." By the time the Europeans arrived and settled in the Americas, the "boss" (Indians) had been almost completely eliminated. Disease ran rampant and killed off the Indians, disrupting their control of the environment. When Indians died, animal populations, such as that of the buffalo grew immensely. "Because they (Europeans) did not burn the land with the same skill and frequency as its previous occupants, the forests grew thicker." The world discovered by Christopher Columbus was “largely an inadvertent European creation.”
Mann concludes with the idea that we must look to the past to right the future. "Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens."

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