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Book Review


Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). 465 pp., $14.95..

     What may be Charles Mann's strongest message for teachers and historians is contained in a footnote on page 177 of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. He points out that a popular textbook, World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity, examines the "four initial centers" of civilization—the Nile Delta, the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the Indus Valley, and the valley of the Huang He in depth, as presumably it should. But the text devotes only nine pages to the pre-Columbian Americas. The thesis of his book, Mann says, "is that Native American history merits more than nine pages." Few readers of World History Connected would disagree.

Mann presents evidence that a complex urban civilization developed in Peru no later than 2500 B.C., when only Sumerian civilization existed in Eurasia. His purpose throughout this book is to challenge two well-rooted assumptions: that Europeans found in the New World a sparsely populated land, most of whose people were hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculturists; and that the western hemisphere's only two civilizations, those of the Aztecs and the Incas, were easily overthrown by superior European technology, weaponry, and will.

Mann is by no means the first to confront these self-serving myths about New World history. Indeed, he is a journalist rather than a researcher, and his purpose is to survey the latest findings in a number of fields—anthropology, linguistics, archeology, genetics, among others—and build from them a fresh portrait of the New World. He is thus a synthesizer rather than a researcher. That said, this is a formidable task for one book and one writer. The scope of the book, and Mann's journalistic approach to the sources, lead both to the book's strengths and to its limitations.

For the most part, 1491 is very well-written. Consider this description of the central myth of the Mexica:

Even when the strife . . .quieted enough to allow the sun to shine, it still had to battle the stars and moon every day as it rose in the sky—a literal struggle of light against darkness. Each day of sunlight was a victory that must be fought and won again the next day. Because the sun could not hold out forever against its foes, one sixteenth-century Nahuatl account explained, it would one day inevitably lose—there was no getting around it. "In this Sun it shall come to pass/ That the earth shall move,/ That there shall be famine/ And that we all shall perish."

Mann has done a good job of absorbing an enormous number and variety of sources, and this shows in the book's relaxed, confident style. But as a journalist he seems preoccupied with scholars as personalities, and he leans heavily on the many interviews he has conducted with them to find a balance point among conflicting points of view, and to lend force and wit to key arguments. To someone accustomed to reading scholarly works, this reliance on personal interviews can be disconcerting.

Yet sometimes Mann's approach works well. An excellent example is his treatment of the controversy over exactly when Native Americans arrived in the western hemisphere, and how they came to be there. There are two main camps: those who believe that they came over a land bridge from Siberia that opened up during the last ice age, and those who believe that migrations took place thousands of years earlier. The first, more traditional group long based its case on the assumption that the famous Clovis culture of 15,000 years ago was the first documented Native American culture. But more recent discoveries, notably in Monte Verde in Chile, suggest that Native Americans must have migrated to the Americas much earlier. Mann's interviews reveal just how intense and frustrating the debate between the "Clovis First" camp and its opponents has been, and how chaotic the state of contemporary opinion has become. "If Clovis was not first, the archaeology of the Americas is wide open, a prospect variously feared and welcomed. 'Anything goes now, apparently,' [Stuart] Fiedel told me. 'The lunatics have taken over the asylum.' "

Almost as effective are the interviews Mann has done around the population issue: how many people lived in the Americas in 1491? What at first glance would seem a pretty technical, even bloodless exercise in statistical analysis turns out to be loaded with political implications. Consider this from Lenore Stiffarm of the University of Saskatchewan:

You always hear white people trying to minimize the size of the aboriginal populations their ancestors personally displaced. . . .Oh, there used to be a few people there, and disease killed some of them, so by the time we got here they were almost gone. It's perfectly acceptable to move into unoccupied land, and with only a few "savages" is the next best thing.

Yet David Henige, author of Numbers From Nowhere, says with equal vehemence and irony:

We can make of the historical record that there was depopulation and movement   of people from internecine warfare and diseases. But as for how much, who   knows? When we start putting numbers to something like that—applying large   figures like 95 percent—we're saying things we shouldn't say. The number   implies a level of knowledge that's impossible.

What seems at stake here, and at many other places in the book, are moral issues. If there were scores of millions of people here before Columbus, living in a variety of civilizations and sophisticated cultures, then the conquest of the New World must have been due mostly to the impact of European diseases—what one scholar calls "the greatest destruction of lives in human history."

Because of its lively style, excellent illustrations, and sheer scope, this book can certainly serve as a supplemental reading for college students and sophisticated high schoolers. It is eminently quotable, and provides students many examples of how historical issues can, and often must, become the stuff of which present-day controversies are made.

Mann energetically argues that there were more Native Americans, living in larger and often urban settings, with more power, wealth, and technological and military prowess than we ever suspected. Fair enough. Still, I found myself wanting to read a different book, much as I enjoyed this one. I wanted to know more about what it was like to live as a Mexica; how the world looked to the so-called Iroquois. Perhaps necessarily, the book keeps our imaginations firmly locked into the controversies and preoccupations of our own time, rather than traveling back with us into different and fascinating communities of the past—as, for example, Stephen Mithen does so well in After the Ice.


Bernard Weinraub
The Waverly School


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