Tuesday, October 03, 2006

1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 is not so much the story of a year, as of what that year stands
for: the long-debated (and often-dismissed) question of what human
civilization in the Americas was like before the Europeans crashed the
party. The history books most Americans were (and still are) raised on
describe the continents before Columbus as a vast, underused
territory, sparsely populated by primitives whose cultures would
inevitably bow before the advanced technologies of the Europeans. For
decades, though, among the archaeologists, anthropologists,
paleolinguists, and others whose discoveries Charles C. Mann brings
together in 1491, different stories have been emerging. Among the
revelations: the first Americans may not have come over the Bering
land bridge around 12,000 B.C. but by boat along the Pacific coast 10
or even 20 thousand years earlier; the Americas were a far more urban,
more populated, and more technologically advanced region than
generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static
harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the
continents, to the point that even "timeless" natural features like
the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention.

Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily
speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise
scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in
later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist
stories are among the best-founded: the stories of early
American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the
earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of
natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied
landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly,
encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native
American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what
was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and
other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population
without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the
explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land
that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained
for centuries before. --Tom Nissley

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