1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
Review by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.
Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset and Squanto, the first Native Americans to make contact with the Plymouth Colony pilgrims, and how in 1621 they strolled into the transplanted Englishmen's village and a big party broke out, thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving. I was (mis)taught in a Massachusetts classroom where heritage and history are king, so much was made of this. We were led to believe the story by elementary schoolteachers who probably wholeheartedly believed it themselves. What about the Virginia Colony of 1607 and their contact with the native inhabitants? It failed, so sweep it under the rug. Something tells me this version of America's founding by Europeans was not the one being taught in Virginia at the time...
Never was explained how the two natives could speak English (from Englishmen fishing off of the Maine coast and, in Squanto's case, from abduction and internment for seven years in England) or anything that happened in the Americas prior to the pilgrims landing. Oh sure there was talk of Incas and Mayans and their all important maize. But the extent, the sheer size of the native tribes, clans, and cosmopolitan societies of the Americas, north and south, and how Europe brought it all down upon their heads, none of this was discussed. Why? Because even during the late 1970s and early 80s when the movement to turn the Native Americans into mystical caretakers of Mother Earth, there was still a prejudicial sense of 'white is right' prevalent, at least in the neighborhood I grew up in. The other reason is a plain lack of knowledge. My simple teachers simply did not know. They can't wholly be blamed. The information wasn't readily available or flat-out wasn't available. School books were traditional and outdated. The grey-area material was swept under the rug. Now there is less grey-area material - advances in technology and archaeological practices have greatly advanced our knowledge of the past in just a few short decades - but there's still plenty of unknown patches of time in the western hemisphere. In 1491 Mann does not shy away from them.
Having said that, it should be noted that this is not just about North America. No, in fact more time is spent on everything below it. Through discovered texts and deciphered inscriptions there's just more known about Mesoamerica than the other areas, so yes, there are pages upon pages about those Incas and Mayans.
In general what I love about 1491 is that it doesn't take the Indians' side or the Europeans'. It doesn't try to cast a glowing angelic light upon the native inhabitants to transform them into woodland spirits whose only concern was the preservation of the trees and the birds, etc blah blah blah (Earth Day is quaint and misguided, but I digress...), nor does Mann attempt to attack or defend the actions of the Europeans. All is more of a statement of fact or, if lacking concrete evidence, a statement of possibility based on sound theory.
Sure, this distills oceans of scholarly study down to a more manageable duck pond, but it never tries to pretend it is doing otherwise. Mann is no pretender to vaunted erudition. He's a journalist who's done some research. He's a guy who realized his own grade school education was lacking, and when he found out the moldy stuff he was taught way back when was still being taught to his son he decided to do something about it. I'm glad for it.
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