Saturday, September 2, 2017

Book Review: '1491' by Charles C. Mann

"What is the conclusion then?" -- 1 Corinthians 14:15 (NKJV)

Accurately describing the past is tricky business. Part of the problem comes in being unaware of our own thinking habits that stall our ability to perceive accurately what is in front of us. More significantly, lots of partial evidence can point in a variety of directions, many of which may be ignored. Further, there's a tendency to pick a view that will draw attention . . . causing "spectacular" explanations over more cautiously chosen ones. Ultimately, it's just that the past is so large, complex, and shifting that it's beyond our power to capture.

1491 is not so much about what life was like before Columbus in North and South America as it is about the methodological and intellectual problems with identifying what has gone before us . . . particularly in the absence of written records that we can decipher and understand. In the course of exploring this broad theme, Charles C. Mann does a solid job of contrasting traditional beliefs about pre-Columbian times (small populations of "uncivilized" people who lived in the middle of a nearly pristine environment, little changed over thousands of years) with more recent scholarship that suggests the Americas may have had enormous populations relative to Europe that were soon decimated by disease from Europeans, very sophisticated civilizations, and advanced practices for controlling the environment that we would do well to emulate today. I came away with an appreciation that tracking down what really happened is probably the work of many future centuries of research. In any event, those who "assume" European superiority in 1491 can learn a lot from reading about the contrary evidence as described by Mr. Mann.

The book's main weakness is that it doesn't have a simple thesis and structure. Ostensibly focused on new research, the book often tells about the new findings in such a leisurely and anecdotal way that what you learn is more at the factoid level than in fleshing out a picture of what happened. As a result, there's a lot of "what if" information here that's not likely to be fully confirmed or denied anytime soon. You'll come away realizing the you need to keep an open mind about many aspects of life in the Americas before 1492 without being able to firmly state what did occur . . . with the exception of descriptions of conquests among some of the larger empires. I found the book's photographs and maps greatly helped to make the scientific studies come to life so I could integrate what was being said into a personal perspective.

Mr. Mann is very fair in presenting questions and rebuttals from scholars about hypotheses and competing conclusions so that you won't feel as though you only have the choice of accepting all the latest studies without question.

My overall reaction to the book was to want to learn more about these studies. I hope that scholars in these subjects will be encouraged to publish well-illustrated books at the popular science reading level for those who would like to know more about the lessons from earlier civilizations that we should be applying today. Inquiring minds will be interested, I'm sure.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.