We picked up a used copy of Charles Mann’s pop-archeology book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus a while back. I didn’t read it at the time, because I was a little afraid that it would be rather polemical in what I think of as the Neil Young mode– wildly overstating the awesomeness of pre-Columbian cultures, and exaggerating the evil of the European invaders (Neil’s recorded some great stuff, but the lyrics to “Cortez the Killer” are pretty dopey). It came up several times recently in discussions elsewhere, though, and seemed like it would make a nice break from the disappointing run of SF novels I’d been reading, so I picked it up for bedtime reading.
Happily, it is not at all polemical, unless you’re a hard-core Eurocentrist or a member of the Texas Board of Education. Mann’s core message is that the pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas were more populous and more advanced than previously suspected, but for the most part he avoids politicizing this. He lays out a bunch of recent(ish) archeological evidence pointing to higher population and technology levels, and explains how previous generations of archeologists managed to fool themselves into thinking otherwise. It’s only a survey of these civilizations, as he’s trying to cover two whole continents and tens of thousands of years of history, but it’s a fascinating and highly readable description of the recent science dealing with these people and their cultures.
Of course, I come to this very much as an outsider, so it’s possible that I’m missing some critical context that would make this a plausible-sounding-but-deeply-flawed work (see: Diamond, Jared), but it’s a fascinating story, well told. Two things in particular jumped out at me from reading this, one medical and the other environmental.
On the medical side, Mann cites a bunch of people arguing that epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases wiped out better than 90% of the population of the Americas in the decades after first contact with Europeans. This seems like a shockingly high number– even the Black Death in Europe didn’t come close to that level– and he attempts to argue that there was a genetic component to this. The claim is that all of the inhabitants of the Americas were descended from a relatively small group of initial settlers, and thus had a narrower range of some key immune system responses than European or Asian populations.
If this is true (and it seems a bit thin, to be honest), that would mean that the post-contact collapse of all these civilizations was as much a matter of fantastically bad luck as anything else. Had their ancestors had a different set of immune responses, European colonization would’ve turned out completely differently. Which is kind of weird and shocking, really.
The other big claim of the book is that the landscape we have come to think of as “unspoiled wilderness” was, in fact, being managed on a grand scale by these civilizations, through controlled burning and other techniques. He suggests, in fact, that the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons that were wiped out in the 19th century were not the natural state of North America wildlife, but were themselves an anomalous situation caused by the collapse of the civilizations that had previously been keeping them in check.
This is a fascinating idea, largely because if it’s true, it would have dramatic implications for the way we approach current environmental crises. Among other things, it would suggest that it is, in fact, possible to actively manage continent-sized environments in a fashion that is often said to be impossible. Whether the sort of management he describes would be sustainable for current populations and lifestyles is another matter, of course, but this is a good deal more hopeful than a lot of what you hear these days.
But, as I said, I could be missing the critical context that would show that this view is a complete load of crap. I am not an archeologist, and I don’t play one on the Internet.
I enjoyed this quite a bit, and would welcome suggestions of other books in a similar vein, namely modern pop-archeology books– they don’t have to be solely about the Americas. I’m just looking for books providing good, readable, and reasonably solid scientifically accounts of what we’ve learned about ancient cultures since the early 1980’s when I last read a lot of this sort of thing.