Monday, January 14, 2008

Finishing 1491

As I mentioned, I am reading 1491. Having finished it, I highly recommend it as a way to reset your understanding of the Americas. Author Charles Mann's purpose is to debunk three commonly held ideas about the Americas before Columbus: that the continents were sparsely populated, that the social and technical development was limited and that the locals left the environment untouched.

In discussing scholarly debates on these subjects, he convincingly argues that the population, before the decimation of disease, was quite high. The debate is just how many people there were rather than whether the continents were pristine unoccupied lands waiting for the taking. The major factor here is the spread of Old World disease.

On the question of social and cultural development, he argues that Peru and Mesoamerica should be counted among the birthplaces of human culture. While they didn't develop in the same way as Asian or European societies, they represent great achievements that best took advantage of their situation.

His final point is that the locals were extensive modifiers of the environment. In fact he goes so far as to say that the Amazon as we know it is the result of thousands of years of human engineering.

All of these arguments have their foes and Mann gives them room in the book as well. It's a fair, easy to read book that will likely educate and entertain all but specialists.


Anonymous said...

A reading question: do you think people who liked Jared Diamond's "guns Germs and Steel" would like this book? Or vice versa? Either way, I've got to check it out. Thanks for the review.

Tripp said...

Yes, do check out the book. In regards to your question, I think people who like one will like the other with the following qualifications.

Because 1491 is about one region as opposed to the three or four discussed in Guns, it is a lot more detailed. Those who like or dislike detail may not like the other book. Those who want to go deeper than Diamond could will eat this up.

While both books are about dispelling commonly held beliefs ( the West took over the rest due to inherent superiority in Western culture(Diamond) and the population, development and environmental concerns (Mann), 1491 places more emphasis on the development of the specific cultures than the effect of the geographic environment.

They are equally good as stylists, which is nice.

Tripp said...

I will add that although I have not read Collapse, I think Mann takes a different approach to the Maya than Diamond does in that book. Mann thinks the ecological collapse theory is overstated.

This is based on my reading of reviews, so take it with a grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tripp-
This is all very helpful information. I work in a library and the demand for Diamond's work is insatiable, so I'm always on the lookout for other, similar titles to recommend. I personally hated the Diamond books so it's also hard for me to naturally stumble across other similar books! I appreciate the thoughtful replies.

Tripp said...

Glad to help! You might also consider David Landes Wealth of Nations, which is something of a retort, arguing that culture is the key determinant of global success. It's not as good a book, but it is a good counter argument.