15 September 2007


1491; New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

This book offered many intriguing alternatives for interpreting the historical record of the American continents prior to the European migrations. The author proceeds methodically through the evidence and accounts of the first explorer and adventurers, all the while acknowledging the flaws in the evidence - that we are trying to construct a cohesive vision of a culture from the fragmentary, biased and unsympathetic eyes of the invading forces. Even so, the author is able to provide solid evidence for a few hypothesis: first, that the native populations were not passive recipients of the changes to their world; in many cases, they were active strategists and solid players in allying or fighting with the Europeans they met. And second, most profoundly, that disease was the key factor in the tragic loss of life on a scale unprecedented in human populations.

In sum, I had a few take aways -

  • The native populations of the Americas were decimated not through superior technologies or through supposed cultural superiority of the invaders, but through disease exacerbated by a genetic vulnerability to disease and lack of knowledge of how to treat disease

  • Other cultures, for example African and Asian groups, which encountered European expansion did not experience the same loss of life that the native populations of the Americas experienced, nor did they have the disease factor to contend with

  • The native populations of the Americas had a sophisticated and long history of agriculture and settlement; thus, peoples arriving post-disease-impact entered an environment in which a large amount of work had already been done to prepare the environment

  • If the Mongolian invasions in Europe had been coincident with outbreaks of Bubonic plague, as the European invasions in the Americas coincided with outbreaks of Smallpox, I'd probably be blogging in Mongolian. θæNks, Genghis.

Atlantic Review article

Thanks Mom for bringing the book to my attention after attending Charles Mann's lecture and book signing at the Field Museum.

And hey: this is one of the last items in my list for a challenge from November 2006: From the Stacks Winter Challenge. I'm rather pleased that now I've finished 3 of the 5 books for the challenge.