1491 by Charles C. Mann


Having read the enthusiastic New York Times review of 1491, I thought surely I would like it, though I was leary of a book that "radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans in 1492."  The claims include that there were more people in the Americas than in Europe at the time, that some cities had greater technological advances than European cities at the time (such as running water), that the Native Americans had transformed their land in dramatic ways, and were able to farm the rain forest without destroying it.  Some or all of these may well be the case.  Nevertheless I found this book stunningly unpersuasive. 

I decided to stop reading it after I came across this argument:  the author is making the case that a smallpox epidemic in the Andes' Inca population resulted in a ferocious civil war not long before Pizarro appeared, and was one major reason the thousands of Inca warriers were killed by 168 Spanish troops.  He notes how destabilizing epidemics thoughout history have been, tearing the bonds that hold cultures together.  But when he says, "Martin Luther's rebellion against Rome was a grandson of the Plague, as was modern anti-Semitism," I had to stop.  Using these two questionable ideas as arguments was the tipping point.

Though I have no doubt the various myths we have about Native Americans are created to serve the Europeans views, I was not persuaded that Charles Mann could present a clearer picture to me.  He was so intent on making his case that I saw his book as less than factually reliable.  

Alan Taylor's book review in The Washington Post was positive, but I find his last paragraph to be very damning:

He is also less than discriminating in evaluating the array of new theories, some far weaker than others. For example, he concludes with naive speculations directly linking American democracy to Indian precedents that supposedly dissolved European hierarchies of command and control. In the process, he minimizes the cultural divide separating consensual natives from coercive colonists: "Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members — surrounded by direct examples of free life — always had the option to vote with their feet. . . . Historians have been puzzlingly reluctant to acknowledge this [Indian] contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide." Mann would be less puzzled if he knew that Indians would not have welcomed thousands of colonial refugees; that colonial societies sustained a slave system more oppressive than anything practiced in Europe; and that the slaveowners relied on Indians to catch runaways.

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