Thursday, August 9, 2012

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

Mann, C. C. (2005). 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Knopf.

Growing up in Colorado, I was vaguely aware of the importance of Indian culture in that region (Boulder High School is located on the site of an Arapahoe settlement). Marrying a New Mexican who grew up near the Bandelier Pueblo increased my interest in pre-Columbian history. Two years ago, I enjoyed a visit to the Taos pueblo, which I believe is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in North America. Then last week I spent a day at Mesa Verde National Park, the site of an ancestral home of our modern Pueblo Indians. My Mesa Verde experience was greatly enhanced by the coincidental birthday gift of ʺ1491ʺ.

ʺ1491ʺ exposed me to modern research revealing the dramatic impact of pre-Columbian civilizations on the Western Hemisphere. Besides the obvious question of how the Indians got here (toss out the too-clean Ice Age land bridge picture from high school history class), the book details how perceptions of the extent and complexity of Indian populations have changed over the past few decades. And when I say ʺdetailsʺ, I mean it: over 100 pages of notes and bibliography document the 400 pages of text.

Besides considering the issues of origins, the book describes how researchers have come to conclude that Indian populations literally collapsed from the inadvertent introduction of smallpox by the earliest Europeans. And the resulting population explosion of bison, elk, and passenger pigeons. And how the extensive trade networks caused the epidemics to reach Peru before Pizarro, thus softening up the Inka empire for his historic conquest. And how the Inkan ancestors genetically engineered maize (well, no question that they did it, but how is still up for debate). ʺ1491ʺ tells about the milpa farming practices of southern Mexico that allowed continuous cultivation of corn, beans, and squash on the same land, without fertilizer, for 5000 years. And about Indian land and forest management of the Amazon, producing fertile soil out of the nutrient-bereft rain-forest earth by ʺslash and charʺ agriculture. And Indian land management of the Midwestern US (the forests explored by Lewis and Clark were actually relatively young, having arisen after the decimation of the Indian populations by disease). And much, much more.

Actually, I'm amazed and impressed at just how much information is packed into a mere 400 pages. The book is actually quite well-written and easy to read, partly due to the author incorporating juicy scientific controversies and spats into the narrative. Here's a revelation: science is done by people. Humans, as a matter of fact. With (gasp) agendas. It is fascinating to see in this tale an example of the inherent conservatism of science, where the existing paradigm is vigorously defended against discordant new information. Despite those agendas, despite having to reject cherished views, when the weight of the evidence is sufficiently great the new perspective eventually gains widespread acceptance (dark energy?). And, in a bonus for UW readers, several UW faculty, in particular William Denevan from the Geography Department, play prominent roles in the new developments.

ʺ1491ʺ certainly challenged my understanding of pre-Columbian history. It seems quite well researched and documented, and from what I can glean from the internet, hasn't been pilloried too badly by true experts in the field. A great book to read on vacation when your family disapproves of you bringing physics books along.

Submitted by Thad Walker

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

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