Book Review: “1491″ by Charles Mann

January 4, 2010

Just how many people were in the New World on the cusp of the Columbus encounter? And how advanced were the preeminent civilizations at the time? Mann takes a big, bold perspective on the Way Things Might Have Been in this interesting sociological tapestry.

Thoughtful new (or at least little-known in non-academic circles) perspectives fill Mann’s book, a nice synthesis of pre-Columbian hypotheses that isn’t a bad read at all.

Mann’s efforts to avoid emotionally-charged terminology (he even devotes an appendix to explaining himself) sometimes backfire: in his efforts to present lesser-talked-about pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas as valuable and complex in an even-handed way, he often ends up flinging pejorative and subjective descriptions of arriving Europeans. The Spanish are “gawking yokels,” the Puritans smelly and ignorant. Even as he denigrates the “noble savage” construct he is paradoxically buttressing its inverse. But it does have a gentler feel to it, and perhaps it’s just a bit of harmless overemphasis.

What’s more concerning is the striking lack of evidence for the core hypothesis he is shilling here: that there were many, many (many many many) more native Americans, in much more complex societies than we had realized. Well, OK. He has some significant archaeological evidence for the latter. But he even admits that “no definitive data exist” regarding population, and recognizes that even slight margins in estimates could have massive impacts on the actual reality of the past.

Mann is a comfortable, conversational writer, sharp at the everyday kind of expository that makes for good popular non-fiction. The book is narrative, enjoyable.

3.5 stars
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