Friday, January 13, 2006

The New American History

I've just finished reading a book that I found very fascinating. Authored by Charles C. Mann the book is 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The year 1491 was of course the year before Columbus began the first (at least as far as the general populace believes) of a wave of ocean crossings from Europe to the Americas. The book examines what has been learned within the last few decades of the people living in the Americas prior to Columbus. Essentially this book erases virtually everything I had been taught when growing up. So many myths exposed, so much truth revealed.

Not that I haven't known of many of the more recent discoveries made in archeology since my upbringing, this book wraps so many of them into one good reference location, despite the authors own admission that his work is incomplete and lacking much as to sections of the Americas not covered due to page constraints. The book is very personable in the respect that Mann periodically describes his own visits to dig sites and places of interest.

Some of the "truth" I was taught back in school that gets overturned covered in this book I found most interesting and to be honest more believable. For instance, the idea that the Americas was basically an empty "pristine" land with a smattering of natives living as a hunter gatherer society. Or that the Indians simply walked over a temporary land bridge from Asia. Or that the Americas didn't have sophisticated civilizations. I was particularily intrigued by the very recent understanding that the Amazonian basin supported large masses of farming peoples that could create a soil that was endlessly reusable, unlike the slash and burn techniques of today.

The saddest part of pre-Columbus history is first the lack of understanding of the peoples of the Americas viewpoint and second the tragic loss of so many millions due to the diseases brought over by Europeans. In the America of today we get bombarded in the news about the coming avian flu epidemic in contrast to two continents that were waiting unbeknownest for a slew of diseases including the most deadly for Indians, small pox. The diseases were so potent that white settlers found essentially empty land and abandoned villages within a few decades after early settlements as the movement west began. The diseases began in the very early contact and swept west even before the Euros even "discovered" more of the continent.

The lack of understanding is due to a few factors, such as the history of the Americas was written by Europeans (certainly the history books I was brought up on) with a self interest or self promotion of those that came to dominate the Americas. Europeans were very little interested in even accumulating the wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from Indians of their oral tradition (spoken history) as conquering and later Manifest Destiny became the primary motivation. Another reason is the lack of writings from the Americas prior to Columbus. A very interesting section of the book deals with the "writings" of the Inka civilization that still is not entirely understood. A unique form of recording involving knots on strings. The Inka created three dimensional "books" if you will. Sadly much of the collections of knotted strings (Khipi) were destroyed by the Spanish. A book burning in a real sense.

Whole books have been written in the recent decades about some of the more unique and largest societies of the Americas. The Mayans and Inka, the Aztecs and mound cultures of North America have begun to receive the attention they have long been due. Yet, much is still not known by most Americans (North and South) of those that lived in the very lands we now reside. Our history books in our schools are still decades out of date and will probably be that way for many years to come as recent understandings keep emerging faster than any school book publisher could include. But of course most of these history books don't see that pre-Columbus America has any relevence to modern times.

Thomas Mann does well in pointing out some aspects that do indeed have relevence. The myth of the pristine wilderness for instance. It is now becoming consensus that Indians certainly manipulated nature on a grand scale. In our modern world that has a keen interest in how the relationship of humans and nature play out, understanding Indian culture and their interaction with the environment could be helpful, even critical. Here in the United States we could learn from pre-Columbus Americans and their practice of yearly "controlled burns" throughout much of North America. Indians "landscaped" for their needs much as modern Americans do today, yet in such different ways.

Indians culled animal populations in ways we might understand. The overlapping Hopewell (white-centically named for a farmer whose land a mound was discovered on) and the Mississippian cultures that were known for their mounds more than likely culled bison in order to prevent tramplings of their maize fields. An interesting story is the city of Cahokia with a population of at least 15,000 in approximately 1100 AD was comparable in size to London of the same time. A huge mound located east of today's St. Louis, it may have been a city that learned the hard way about environmental manipulation in a couple of ways. It's been speculated that they reformed a river that later caused major flooding problems after an earthquake and they also may have deforested all the land around them due to the massive need for wood for building and fuel. Of course Cahokia isn't the only culture to ever face a natural fuel resource shortage.

Mann covers the subject of the Americas most important crop, maize. Even today botanists don't understand how maize came to be, except they know that Indians essentially created a plant never known to the earth. In contrast to the earliest civilizations we've been taught most about that had easy grains to begin to cultivate, Indian civilizations came up with maize in what was probably a difficult transition from plants of their time that in no way resembled the corn we know today. The varieties of maize they created was profound, yet we've only recently revisited some of these other varieties for our uses. Corn became the staple that was exported and planted all over the world. Potatoes from South America as well, but that's another story.

Mann also covers the recent upsetting of consensus that the Americas were first settled via an opened land bridge connecting North America and Asia about 13,000 years ago via the Bering Strait at the end of the last ice age. Recent scientific work has shown that there probably was no ice-free corridor. But genetic research finds that Indians are most closely related to North Asians, so conjecture now focuses on the transition being made by boat along the rim of the Pacific. As well the date for this happening is being pushed back to as much as 30,000 years ago based on evidence on a dig in Chile called Monte Verde. The old theory is dying and new ideas are now forming. The Clovis society was not the first people of the Americas anymore.

Well, I could go on at long length about this book, but why don't you just read it. If you are interested in knowing more about the people who once ran the Americas, 1491 is a remarkable re
ad and a sample of the book printed in the Atlantic Monthly can be viewed here.

Thomas C. Mann's website pertaining to 1491


Post a Comment

<< Home