The Cracker Barrel: 1491
Every so often a book comes along that changes the way we think about the world. Charles C. Mann's 1491 is one of them. Subtitled "New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Mann's book turns our understanding of history upside down and inside out. I recently read it a second time, and found myself wishing it could be required reading for us all.
In case that sounds far-fetched, consider the following so called "facts," most of which we all learned in grade school, and which underlie the way we think about what's gone before us, and why things are the way they are.
"Fact" one: when Columbus reached what came to be called the Americas (North and South) in 1492, both continents were lightly populated by native peoples living in Stone Age conditions.
"Fact" two: since European technology and culture were older and more sophisticated than anything in the Americas, the native peoples were easily vanquished.
"Fact" three: given the superiority of Old World ways of life, the New World became civilized and adopted most of the customs brought over by Europeans, unable to offer little by way of exchange.
Drawing on the discoveries made by archeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists in the last couple of decades, Mann dismisses all of the above "facts" as untrue, and offers instead a very different picture of the way things happened.
In the first case, it now appears that populations of both North and South America far exceeded those of Europe at the time Columbus came ashore. Both American continents were largely under cultivation, and most of the native peoples enjoyed permanent homes and lived in well-organized villages and cities.
In the second case, the diseases brought over from Europe, especially smallpox, swept through the Americas in advance of the invaders and are now thought to have killed as many as 95-97 percent of the resident natives.
With a handful of exceptions, this was not intentional, and appears to have come about simply because Europeans had for centuries lived in close proximity to domesticated animals and developed much greater immunity to stock-borne disease than their American counterparts. When European animals such as horses, cows, and pigs arrived here along with their owners, diseases spread like wildfire in an amazingly short time.
As to the superiority of the Old World compared to the New, Mann argues that the terms are actually backward. It now appears that the Americas have been continuously populated for many thousands of years more than previously believed, thus being the older of the two worlds.
Both North and South America sport stone-and-earthen-work constructions that dwarf the Great Pyramids and predate Stonehenge. And the incredible success of American native cultures in developing edible strains of corn and potatoes and other crops, which quickly spread to Europe and on to other continents, together with the unique political forms of representative democracy that became part of the U.S. constitution and were later adopted in other countries, give Mann reason to suggest that native Americans exported far more of value than they ever imported.
But such a brief look at this fascinating book in no way does it justice. I urge you to find a copy of Mann's work and read it for yourself. Just be forewarned: your world will never be the same.