1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Dobyns belonged to a research team led by his doctoral advisor, Allan R. Holmberg of Cornell, the Holmberg after whom I have unkindly named Holmberg’s mistake. Holmberg had persuaded Cornell to let him lease an old colonial estate in rural Peru (the Carnegie Corporation, a charitable foundation despite its name, provided the funds). The estate included an entire village, whose inhabitants, most of them Indian, were its sharecroppers. @It was really a form of serfdom,” Dobyns told me in a long conversation shortly before his death in 2009. “The villagers were just heartbreakingly poor.” Holmberg planned to test strategies for raising their incomes. Because land tenure was a contentious issue in Peru, he had asked Dobyns to finalize the lease and learn more about the estate’s history. With his adjutants, Dobyns visited a dozen archives, including those in the cathedral.

I got interested in this book from an extract that I reported in November, What really happened on Thanksgiving, which told the story of the Pilgrim Fathers from the Indians’ point of view: these incompetent Europeans arrived in a fertile area recently depopulated by plague, and eventually were co-opted by the locals into existing power struggles. It’s a really solid book, based on extensive research and reporting scholarly disputes and the evolution of interpretations of the evidence, combined with anecdata of Mann’s own encounters with both researchers and the descendants of the researched. (Incidentally, he reports that the latter generally identify with and use the term “Indians” to refer to themselves, so he follows their lead.)

I took three main points away from the book. First, that the series of plagues inflicted on the peoples of the Americas by Europeans was one of the most catastrophic events in human history. The lowest estimate of population decrease due to disease in what is now Latin America (home to two large and well-developed polities) in the 16th century is a whopping 90%. Disease spread much faster than Europeans, who often arrived (like the Pilgrims) into territory where the indigenous human activity had simply died off. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of the catastrophe.

Second, immense amounts of important human culture have therefore simply been lost. I was aware of the fact that only four Mayan manuscripts survive. I wasn’t aware that there are also eight from the Ñudzahui (Mixtec) culture, including the brilliant story of 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, which is surely ready for dramatization. I had certainly never heard of the Cahokia Mounds, in southern Illinois just across the Mississippi from St Louis, Missouri, which sound utterly fantastic. So little is known; so much has been destroyed.

Third, Mann makes the daring suggestion that American concepts of liberty and freedom actually owe much more to the influence of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (aka the Iroquois) than is generally relised. He quotes John Adams reminiscing about his relationship with local Indian chiefs in mid-18th-century Massachusetts, and points out that the ideals of personal freedom from oppression were practiced much more by Indians than by Europeans. He goes a step further, and wonders if it’s coincidence that slavery was generally practiced by Indians south of what became the Mason-Dixon line, but not by those to its north. I’m not sure about the latter point, but the rest of it is a very attractive concept.

Anyway, a book that thoroughly illuminated my own ignorance.

This book came simultaneously to the top of three of my reading lists: books acquired in 2015, unread non-fiction, and non-fiction recommended by you guys. The next book in both the first and second of those categories is The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss; the next in the third was Thing Explainer, by Randall Munro, which I have since read and will report on shortly.