Friday, October 21, 2011

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (author), Peter Johnson (reader)


Highbridge Company, Abridged Edition, ISBN 9781565119789, August 2005

This is an abridged edition, which I normally avoid, but it's still a substantial and fascinating history of the pre-Columbus cultures of the Americas. The story is not told in a strict chronological manner, but Mann's writing and Johnson's reading make it easy to follow and understand.

One of the biggest surprises is the population and lifestyle of the Americas when Columbus arrived. Columbus, Pizarro, other Spanish explorers, the French and English explorers that first reached the northern east coast of North America, all reported, on the first explorations, large populations living in settled communities, practicing agriculture, with highly developed arts. It wasn't just the Aztecs and the Incas; it was most of the population of Central and South America, and much of the population of North America. The impression many of us grew with, that aside from the Aztecs and Incas most Indians were relatively primitive hunter-gatherers when Europeans arrived, is simply false.
 Yet on later visits, many of these population centers were empty or nearly empty. The survivors, no longer able to sustain their towns and farms, were quickly reduced to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, What happened to them? Measles. Smallpox. Influenza. All the diseases common in Europe and Asia, which those populations were accustomed to and had some resistance to, were completely new in the Americas, and swept through the population with devastating effect. And within a generation, European settlers began to doubt the original population reports, and to believe the Indians had always been primitive hunter-gatherers. What was the population of the Americas, pre-Columbus? That's a much harder question; no one was trying to do a census or create any kind of detailed records of population numbers--and by the time the Spanish were established enough that in theory they could have, the population collapse had already happened.

There are also major questions about when the ancestors of the Indians arrived. For many years the accepted theory was that the Clovis people were the first Americans, arriving across the landbridge from Siberia about 13,000 years ago. That theory is being undermined by new evidence; the first Americans may have arrived as much as 15,000 years ago. It's an incredibly complicated question, and I can't do justice to it here.

A much greater proportion of the book is devoted to the Indian civilizations themselves. Indians in Central and South America invented agriculture as early, possibly slightly earlier, than Sumer in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The meso-Americans, in what is now southern Mexico, created maize from a not-very-similar wild plant about 5,000 years ago--a really impressive feat of biological engineering. We get overviews of the Aztecs and Incas, of course, but also of the Maya, the Toltecs, the Olmecs, and cultures I'd never heard of.

We see how advanced the Aztecs and Incas were, how organized, and have to confront the question of how the Spanish--arriving in relatively small numbers, Pizarro had just 168 men to defeat the Inca empire--managed to win. It wasn't the gun; the firearms the Spanish had just weren't that impressive, and disciplined troops with mastery of the weapons the Indians did have, including the sling, could have defeated them. Horses were a bit more important, but, again, disciplined infantry can and have defeated cavalry--especially when the numbers are so disproportionate. The real advantage the Spanish had was twofold. Firstly, the two major Indian empires, Aztec and Inca, were both politically vulnerable. The Inca ruler was young, inexperienced, and had just survived a major dynastic struggle. The Aztecs are more properly known as the Triple Alliance, and there were stresses both between the members of the alliance, and between the members of the alliance and their subject peoples. Forming an alliance with the disaffected was a critical advantage for Cortes. The vulnerability of the Incas and the Aztecs, as well as other peoples of the Americas, was further compounded by the epidemic diseases the Spanish had inadvertently brought with them.

The last part of the book concerns what, in school, I learned to call the Five Civilized Tribes. Mann calls them, I'm sure much more appropriately, the Five Nations. This is another revelation for me; what I knew about the Five Nations is but a pale shadow of the reality. What were originally five warring nations, afflicted by the honor culture, joined together in an alliance under the prodding and leadership of Ayenwatha (better known to most Americans as Hiawatha) and Deganawida, The Great Peacemaker. This alliance, the Iroquois Confederacy, covered much of what is now the northeastern US, and was at least four centuries old when the Pilgrims arrived at Plimouth. They lived a degree of social equality unimaginable in Europe at the time, and had a government structure that in theory made the sachems (all male) autocrats within their realms, but in practice gave considerable power to the clan leaders (all women), and created an expectation that sachems would not ignore the opinions and will of their people. It wasn't a democracy, but set an example of political and social freedom and near-equality that was very attractive, sometimes subversively so, to the European settlers.

This is a fascinating book that I haven't half done justice to. Highly recommended!