Saturday, May 06, 2006

1491 (book)

[my thoughts on the recent book by Charles Mann]

An expanded version of his March 2002 Atlantic Monthly article, this book makes many incredibly interesting claims about life in America before Columbus arrived:
  • The continent was teeming with people. Its population was probably greater than all of Europe. The native populations were destroyed, not by superior weapons or technology, but by disease. In many cases, the native technologies were superior.
  • Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec Mexico, was a bigger and more impressive city than anything in Europe at the time.
  • Tisquantum (aka “Squanto”, the Indian who helped the Pilgrims) had already traveled to Europe (possibly multiple times), and was sent there by the local leader, Massasoit, who wanted to befriend the English in order to defend his smallpox-ravaged tribe against his long-term enemies further inland. [Salisbury, N. 1989]
  • Maize is the only major cereal that can’t reproduce without human help. So where did it come from? Some Indians must have created it as a hybrid through deliberate and rigorous genetic engineering over a period of at least ten years.

The book would have been more of a classic, in league with Guns Germs and Steel, if it had been more carefully edited and compressed. The author tends to go on tangents, which though interesting, don’t add much to the story (like his discussion of “estate tortillas” or the taste of hickory milk). But that's a nit. After reading this book, you won't trust anything you learned in school about the history of pre-Columbian America or the people who were here first.

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