Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month (or rather, over the past 2 months) we read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
Unless you’re familiar with archaeology and anthropology, this book will contain a lot of interesting and perhaps surprising information. The book starts off with talking about Holmberg’s Mistake (and in fact, you can read the whole introduction section about Holmberg’s Mistake on the author’s website), which is the fallacy of assuming that native cultures (mostly in the Americas) were not sophisticated, because the time that we made these observations, these cultures had just survived incredible devastation and disease. It would be as if we visited any city after a disaster and assumed that the people had always lived in devastation.
Before I continue, I just want to mention that the author acknowledges that these theories are all fairly modern and some may be controversial. Like, scientists disagree on the number of people that were living in the Americas, and other things. But the information below is what was written in the book, and since I am not an expert, I’m going to believe the author, with the stipulation that scientific theories are subject to change.
The author mentions that a lot of the narratives in the book come from accounts of people who visited after 1492, sometimes because those are the only accounts that we have. It is striking to compare Europeans’ initial accounts of the Americas, teeming with life and prosperity, with accounts from just 100 years later, where most of the population had died off from disease (multiple waves of smallpox, among others) and societies had collapsed for one reason or another.
Besides the mistaken belief that the indigenous people of the Americas were “noble savages,” there is also belief that they were “environmental stewards,” both living in balance with nature and untouched in a sort of Edenic paradise. In fact, the native people regularly burned forests to clear them for farming, built large earthen mounds, improved the soil with charcoal and broken pottery, and kept local populations of animals in check. This idea that we have of pre-Columbus America as full of forest and millions of wild bison is directly a result of the large die-off of the native population. The world that was experienced by the Pilgrims was a world in the midst of violent change and upheaval.
I thought one of the most interesting parts of the book was the part about Amazonia and the theory that much of the Amazon forest is actually an ancient orchard, which is why some areas are teeming with edible foods (for humans). Many of the fruits described were ones that I had never even heard of before. There is a fruit called the Ice Cream Bean and the inside (fluffy part) actually tastes a little like vanilla ice cream.
The more I read this book, the more I wanted to be a fly on the wall in one of these ancient civilizations.
Even though the book was interesting, it covered a lot of ground and so at times it seemed to drag on a lot. But that’s not the fault of the author. There was just a lot of information–it was a little too much at times. If you’re interested in ancient civilizations and you want to understand the magnitude of loss of the people of the Americas, check out this book.
Next Book Club: Why Did The Chicken Cross the World?
Our next book will be Why Did The Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization by Andrew Lawler. Next post will be up on March 15th, and if you’re in Boston, we will be meeting on the 14th (check out the Boston Skeptics on Facebook for details about that.