*1493*

by on May 22, 2011 at 7:36 am in Books, History | Permalink

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, is one of my favorite books ever, in any field.  And now there is a “sequel,” namely 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, due out in August.  Excerpt:

Incredibly, the Basque-Vicuña war had almost no effect on the flow of silver.  Even as Basques and Vicuñas fought in the streets, they cooperated on mining and refining the silver, then shipping it from Potosi.  The last was a huge task.  One account describes how a single shipment of 7,771 bars left the city in 1549, four years after the lode’s discovery.  Each bar was about 99 percent silver and weighed more than eighty pounds.  All were stamped with serial numbers by the foundry and marked with the owner’s stamp, the foundry stamp, and the taxman’s stamp. By the time the assayer individually certified its purity with his stamp, the bar looked as if it had been graffiti-tagged by a demented numerologist.  Each llama could carry only three or four bars.  (Mules are bigger than llamas, but need more water and are less surefooted.)  The shipment required more than two thousand of the beasts.  They were watched by more than a thousand Indian guards who in turn were watched by squads of Spanish pistoleros.

Is 1493 as good as 1491?  That’s hard to say, but I can report this.  I am spellbound reading it, it will be one of the best books of this year, and, although I know this area somewhat, I am learning fascinating information on literally every page.  Mann stresses how much it mattered to suddenly be living in the “Homogenocene,” where Asia, Europe, and the New World suddenly started becoming more alike.  Mexico City had the world’s first Chinatown and was the first global city.  The discussion of the importance of the potato, and in general New World agriculture, surpasses previous accounts and he explains the importance of knowing how to make chuño.

I have an irrational fondness for this sentence of Mann’s:

The First World War distracted governments from the task of monitoring insect movements.

Definitely recommended.  By the way, here is Mann’s piece on soil erosion and the economics of dirt.  Here is Mann’s home page.  Journalists, if anyone is crying out to be the subject of a fascinating profile, it is Charles C. Mann.

dearieme May 22, 2011 at 8:06 am

“Revelations”. Spelling 1/20.

dearieme May 22, 2011 at 8:11 am

The Amazon review of the 1491 book includes “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..”. But that’s part of the American Foundation Myths: give up that and what else will be given up too?

Norman Pfyster May 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Because most of the continent that Americans inhabit was vast, underused and sparsely populated. Mexico is not part of America (well, except the part we took in the Mexican-American war).

I did read something, though, that the first settlers in Virginia and New England frequently noted how few natives there were, not realizing that whole populations of natives on the eastern seaboard had been wiped out by diseases brought over by earlier European explorers.

russell1200 May 23, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Not covered in the book, but early histories of New England frequently mention people moving into villages that had been emptied by disease.

1491 was a very good book.

Scoop May 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

1491? Seriously? That’s one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen you write. The original Atlantic article was interesting, though under sourced. The book expanded on it with equal parts padding, speculation and agitprop. At points I expected him to echo the radical black studies professors who say the ancient Egyptians built space ships.

There’s simply no way that any pre-industrial society could have had it so good for any period of time. Prosperity would have generated people and pushed them into the Malthusian trap, making them about equally miserable as the typical European of the age. Also, there’s simply no way that Indians in what’s now the U.S. could have been as technically sophisticated as he describes without developing writing. A society simply can’t make that much real progress unless they can secure the advances of each generation in print and allow new generations to build upon them.

It’s as much a fantasy of the noble savage, who is really more civilized than us, as anything Voltaire ever wrote.

JonF May 22, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Agriculture among native people in the US was only about a millennium old in 1500, and was far from universal. Compare with the Middle East or China where agriculture predated both writing and metallurgy by several millennia. Native people north of the Rio Grande were starting to use copper, and petroglyphs had developed in some areas. Possibly after another thousand years of undisturbed development both writing and real metal usage (at least bronze) would have come about.
By the way, the Incas had no writing, but no one would them off as a non-civilization.

James Davies June 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm

“By the way, the Incas had no writing, but no one would them off as a non-civilization.”

The Inca’s had a very interesting recording keeping “writing” that one could categorize as pre-writing, as it served the same purposes as writing did in civilizations in the fertile crescent. It was a series of knots tied on colored ropes or strings, that recorded base-10 numbers, plus possibly more information which hasn’t be deciphered yet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quipu

Fascinating. Of course they’ve only deciphered Mayan writing in the past few decades, and they’ve still much work to do.

Ed May 22, 2011 at 10:40 am

It seems that Scoop and me read different books that had the same title.

The argument in Mann’s “1491” is that many (not all) preColumbian Indians developed more sophisticated technologies than commonly thought, and also makes a strong case for smallpox and other European diseases wiping out 90% of the pre-Columbian population, which implies the higher estimates of these populations are correct. His main evidence are recent archeological discoveries, particularly in the Amazon, and the conquistador’s own accounts.

I don’t remember him writing much about the Indians who lived in what is now the United States, which is to be expected given his sources and evidence.

CBBB May 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I haven’t read 1491 but it seems like books on the topic of “primitive” civilizations that don’t reaffirm the standard narrative bring out a peculiar type of criticism. Guns, Germs, and Steel is a book where every criticism I’ve seen has me wondering if the critic ever actually read the book.

TGGP May 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

There’s one critical book called Understanding Human History, which you can read for free. I wouldn’t take it as gospel, but I found it a worthwhile criticism of at least some of GG&S.

CBBB May 22, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I haven’t read every criticism of GGS nor do I think the book is beyond criticism. I was just saying that GGS is an example of a book that tends to receive a huge amount of what I believe is totally unfair criticism. There’s a lot of people out there who are emotionally invested in the belief of some innate superiority of western civilization and don’t like to have those views explored or debunked in any way.
I assume criticisms of 1491 might be similar.

TGGP May 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

Funny, since a lot of Diamond’s critics present themselves as defenders of indigenous peoples! He was recently sued by Stephen Jay Gould’s widow, associated with some organization called “Stinky Journalism”, because he published a story about a blood feud involving an informant from Papua New Guinea where it turned out a supposed victim was in fine health. I don’t blame Diamond for that, he heard a story and then repeated it for a wider audience in a non-scholarly publication.

JonF May 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I am skpetical about a 90% population loss. The mathematical models which describe disease propagation max out when population losses hit about 60-70% (depending on speed of transmission and initial population density). In the Old World it was rare for even the most virulent pestilence to kill off more 50% of the population in a given locality, except in very small and limited venues, like ships at sea and cloistered monasteries.

Eric Orr May 23, 2011 at 11:55 am

The excess comes from the losses caused after half the population was wiped out. A society that loses half the population continues to collapse.

kebko May 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm

JonF,

Did you read 1491? He presents several reasons why the number would be higher than a typical single event in the Old World.

CBBB May 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm

You have to take into account that people in the old world had resistances to diseases that New World residents would not have had. A good way to develop disease resistance is to have domesticated animals which over generations will spread pathogens to their human masters. In the new world – except for the llama there were no domesticated animals.

Scoop May 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Hmmm. Perhaps I’m misremembering — it has been several years — but I seem to recall the book not only saying that they developed technologies more sophisticated than thought but (in some cases) technologies that we’d struggle to develop today: I seem to recall massive agricultural systems that feed huge numbers of people while doing no harm to the natural environment. Were there not passages that argued that untold acres of what appeared to Europeans to be untrammeled nature were actually sophisticated agricultural machines, shaped by Indians for their purposes?

Even if I’m a bit off here, I’m certainly not off in remembering that one of the overriding themes of the book was that in most pre Columbian societies, common people were far, far better off than their counterparts in Europe. They were better fed and clothed. They lived longer and healthier. But none of those things can co-exist with civilization until your civilization becomes industrial. More prosperity just brings more people until you’re back in the trap. Whatever population levels Mann suggests, if they were low enough that people had plenty, they were too low for reality.

CBBB May 23, 2011 at 4:57 pm

It’s not far fetched to believe that Native Americans lived healthier lives then most Europeans at the time. The life of the average peasant in Europe was pretty bad and possibly worse then had they lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle until the 1800s. Sure the elites lived great and farming societies are much stronger then hunter-gatherer societies overall, but much of technological advances made until the 19th Century didn’t do much for you if you’re just the average peasant in Europe.

vanya_N May 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm

“Were there not passages that argued that untold acres of what appeared to Europeans to be untrammeled nature were actually sophisticated agricultural machines, shaped by Indians for their purposes?”

He does argue that – but that doesn’t mean the pre-1491 inhabitants “did no harm to the natural environment”. It means that much of what Europeans perceived as “unspoiled nature” was not that at all , and that many conservationists are trying to perserve a state of nature that simply can’t exist without human intervention. In that sense “1491” is a subtle rebuke to many beloved left-wing tropes. It’s also probably an open question, perhaps unresolvable, how much the “plenty for all’ in the Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires and perhaps the Mississippi valley depended on the brutal treatments of their subject peoples, including levels of human sacrifice and cannibalism on a scale completely unknown in the rest of the world. These were not utopian societies by any means – which is why so many indigenous people flocked to join the Spaniards.

James Davies May 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I enjoyed ‘1491’ as well. It’s the book I recommend most to people interested in history. I’m looking forward to ‘1493’.

In this month’s National Geographic, Mann has an article about the oldest religious temple yet found, in southern Turkey, called Geobekli Tepe. It’s 11,000 years old. Built before the domestication of wheat. Fascinating. Here’s the online version.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text

Tennyson May 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm

The kindle edition of 1491 costs $2.50 more than the paperback. I find this absolutely infuriating that publishers are capturing the surplus from this, but enough people must be paying these outrageous prices because I barely ever find books I want to read with cheaper snooks.

Tennyson May 22, 2011 at 9:42 pm

“snooks” should be “ebooks”… Thanks spell check!

Jeff May 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Paperback is $16.00; ebook is $11.99. (Amazon discounts the paperback to $9.52, but that’s their decision, not the publisher’s.)

Ed May 22, 2011 at 10:42 pm

“I am skpetical about a 90% population loss.”

I had the exact same reaction as you, and I’m still not sure if it was 90%. By comparison, the Black Death killed about 33% of the population of Western Europe.

But the Black Death was just the worst of several outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Western Europe, there was a particularly nasty outbreak of what seems to have been the same thing in the 6th century. What made the post-1492 events unique was that the pre-Columbian populations had had absolutely no contact with people in the “Old World”, or their diseases, or even most of their animals. So apparently you had entire areas unpopulated by pathogens before the Europeans even set foot there.

Seppo May 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

That sentence belongs on a very limited list of the most cherished sentences in literature

EB Hansen May 23, 2011 at 11:02 am

I recently read 1491, and the book seemed to attempt to fairly present many points points of view, while clearly letting you know which conclusions the author favored and why. That is generally what I ask of science/history journalism. It was also engagingly written and fairly well organized which is always a plus.

Of course the problem is that I don’t know enough about the field of study to know if a good sample of different points of view were actually presented, or if the authors characterizations were accurate, which is always the challenge for a general reader.

I tried to find good criticism by specialists in the field, before and after reading the book, but many reviews seemed to pick apart particular arguments rather then addressing the work as a whole. Plus as a general reader its difficult to know who is actually well qualified to offer a critique.

I guess I’ll just fall back on the latest Wikipedia edit as the sum of all knowledge.

john h May 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Potosi was quite a place…someday I want to visit it. As big a city during the boom years as London or Paris.

Ricardo May 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Germs tend to evolve side-by-side with their hosts in an evolutionary arms race (the sickle cell gene in Africa and the protection it offers against malaria is the most well-established example of this). Native Americans were centuries behind this arms race so it’s not at all outrageous to expect a 90% death rate. I don’t know much about plague outbreaks in Europe and (at least when I read Gregory Clark on the subject) there seem to be a lot of unanswered questions about why they happened but since there were only periodic outbreaks, it seems likely that a lot of Eurasians have some degree of immunity to the disease.

Marian Kechlibar May 24, 2011 at 3:44 am

With regard to AIDS, all of mankind (maybe with some genetic exceptions) is behind in the arms race, and mortality approaches 100%.

I cannot see why so many people doubt the 90% figure. Smallpox was a horrible disease even in the Old World, and the incubation period (4-6 weeks) is perfect for spreading.

steve schiwetz May 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm

May I recommend Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and his earlier work, The Columbian Exchange? Both are cited by Mann and are landmarks in the field Mann synthesizes. And both are available in paperback.

JohnR May 28, 2011 at 1:29 am

For those interested in North American indigenous life pre-exchange you might want to look at the first few chapters of Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember it being great.
In addition, Colin Calloway’s New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans and the remaking of Early America is a fantastic examination of the Columbian exchange. Finally, I’ll echo steve schiwetz above. Crosby is one of the titan’s of the field.

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