Wednesday, April 18, 2007

1491 by Charles C. Mann

Well, there goes the neighborhood. No more noble savage. No more trackless wilderness. No more clouds of bison completely filling the plains. No more uncivilized people living in a blissful state of nature, at peace with the land, each other, and themselves. Instead, Charles C. Mann, a science journalist, has drawn together new insights gleaned from archeology, anthropology, plant science, space photographs, carbon dating, linguistics, and more to people the Americas with civilizations as old as or older than European or middle-eastern empires and technology to rival the most advanced known to early man. Because Mann is not a specialist, he sees the places where areas of knowledge come together in ways that people married to their disciplines can never know. He then synthesizes the picture and presents us with a world we, as students and thoughtful readers never imagined.

A pattern emerges and it’s worth a few moments to trace it toward the choice of a book and the impact that book affects. In recent years my reading has ineluctably driven me back to roots and causes. As I’ve read history – the history of science, of American democracy, of the development of religious ideas and their effects upon our lives, of American political parties, and, more recently, of civilization itself – I’ve kept asking questions about where we came from and how our ideas about ourselves developed.. A list of books I’ve been reading, a survey of the books on our bookshelves and the ones given away to our sons, will show this. Even the unread books in our small trailer suggest a quest back to roots.

More recently, two books by Jared Diamond have pointed out the sources of western civilization as well as the collapse of ancient ones and the potential for collapse of our entire planet if current trends continue. Within this pattern, Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, examines the wealth of advanced civilizations that emerged, flourished, died, and were destroyed in the Americas. He explores how Indians may have arrived, how their civilizations developed, and the heights to which they may have ascended. He explains the differences between technological advances and how they reflect the geographical differences that Diamond explores. He presents the internal battles of archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, and other scientists as they make new findings within a context of new ways to examine evidence.

Mann explodes the myths that Indians lived off the land. Rather he shows how various Indian groups managed forests and plains through the judicious use of fire and plantings to create groves of nut trees and plains suitable for maintaining herds of bison for their use. In Amazonia he shows how the native peoples created plantations of fruits designed to be self-perpetuating without despoiling the land. In the Andes, the Inka and other groups tamed a high desert through irrigation and terracing to permit agriculture where nothing would grow without help. An through it all, the peoples kept records, some written, some aural, and some, perhaps, through an until recently unrecognized woven system of knots. As he goes, he opens a rare and wonderful picture of civilizations we may never have known existed and ways of living that might have had greater influence on the development of our country than anyone has heretofore recognized.

Along with his pictures of past American civilizations, one of the more interesting aspects of Mann’s book is his picture of the wars for prestige and influence waged by the scientists through time. Archeologists and anthropologists, biologists and mathematicians put forward ideas that contradict the accepted knowledge of others, causing reputations to rise and fall, much like the civilizations they picture. Another picture Mann presents is the tantalizing thought of what the world would have been like had not the invading Europeans brought death by disease to make the conquest by arms relatively easy. Furthermore, what might the world be like today if the explorers and colonizers had arrived with a quest for knowledge and understanding rather than a lust for lucre and land?

Mann’s book is extensively annotated and he presents an extensive bibliography for those interested in further reading along the lines he has opened. This book raises, perhaps, as many questions as it answers and points the way towards more ways we might help ourselves to improve our world. Don’t miss this one!