Monday, November 9, 2020

Review of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History, Empires

Elaborate Description

Changing the way indigenous American people are seen is raison d’être of the book. Normally referred to collectively as Indians, they are seen as passive recipients of circumstance rather than people who take actions to change the situation. A collection of new evidence is putting into doubt many previous ideas about the history of American Indians. Not only is there evidence of many more people in North and South continents, but they were there far earlier than previously considered. Art, knowledge, environment change, and political intrigue are all part of the Indian history. The problem is that this history and much of the people vanished due to disease and subjugation. Those who came after did not know the rich history. Astonishing discoveries are bringing about a change in the perception of Indian history.

Much of the history of indigenous American peoples comes from contact with Europeans as many indigenous peoples did not have writing. The information is skewed to the perspective of the Europeans who saw the indigenous people rather than the actual ways that indigenous people expressed themselves. Source information usually had an agenda that was not conducive to empathetic description of indigenous understandings. Although the book is dedicated to American people’s pre-European contact, post contact history is also expressed in order to highlight the difference between the views held and to show behavior in reaction to stressful situations. From comparative analysis of armed conflict to hygiene, the author tries to recognize appropriate similarities and differences from each side’s perspective.

In some early contacts, Indian groups allied with the Europeans to defend or defeat other Indian groups. Jamestown survived due to Indian charity. At war, Indians were formidable adversaries winning many battles. Guns were a disconcerted sight initially, but the lack of practical use made them slightly more than noisemakers. Germs gave the Europeans the greatest advantage, at the cost of depopulating Indian territories. Many sites were whipped out without direct European contact because diseases spread between the Indian societies. Indians were sensitive to the diseases because they did not have immunity to the diseases as the land did not have many species of animals from which the viruses arise. Many Indian societies created their own advantages death of leadership due to diseases by moving into the power vacuum which precipitated in infighting. When germs or fragmentation did not impact an Indian society, they were able to defend themselves against the Europeans repeatedly.

Many societies such as the Inka not only did not have currency, but also had no markets. Rather than creating a dearth of supplies, the Spanish were surprised at the surplus. Warehouses overflowing with food and other resources. Kin and government directed the flow of resources. Apparently, no one went hungry. As Mann explains, those who held the over supplied coffers showed off their prestige and plenty. The Indians did have metals but rather than use them for tools, they were used to express social standing and affiliations.

Certain Indian societies did have writing which in some was compulsory to everyone. Intellectual pursuits included writing, astronomy, and mathematics. Reading was a necessary skill to read the ritual scripts which accompanies public deaths. Much like public executions in the West, Indian societies executed their slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. The sacrifices were needed for moral combat against evil.

Political leaders were considered divine and irreplaceable. Rather than eliminate the rulers, the victors tried to make them vassals. If the leaders died, the victors usually left, leaving behind political problems with succession that lasted many decades. It was more common for different states to join by marriage rather than military coercion. Although there was sex separation in social domains, they were not subordinate to the other. Socially, Indians believed that certain individuals can wield more-than-human power given the right circumstance which is why they were not surprised that strangers like Europeans existed and why Indians were reluctant to try kill the European’s immediately as they may have had supernatural powers.

Indians societies did perish pre-contact with Europeans. As Mann states, Maya overshot the carrying capacity of the environment. Overshooting may have been the catalyst, but it was political failure to find solutions to environment problems which caused social disintegration.

The book is generally well-written and does contain many drastic perspective changes, but there were many parts which were not conducive to understanding the topic. Written in a format that highlights the complexity of understanding Indian history rather than giving pretense to any given theory. New evidence did change how Indian societies are seen, but there are different explanations and details which are given their due. The problem with the writing is that sometimes the tangents and similes make it difficult to understand the context. Sometimes the external examples work, sometimes they do not, there are certainly too many as they break the flow of reading.

The vanishing of many Indian cultures is a great loss to world philosophies, ideas, and stories. The few Indian cultures that survived the contact with Europeans had a profound impact on thoughts regarding freedom and health. Many Indian products were valued more in quality than the comparative European products. Indian history is important in understanding possible futures to present problems and consequences of various policies. Their history provides for a diverse understanding of ideas.


Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9781400032051
Pages to read:   418
Publication:     2011
1st Edition:      2005
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          5
Overall           5