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Review - Ancient Americans/1491 - Charles C. Mann

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Ancient Americans (the US title is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, but we prefer the UK title, as 1491 is confusing - the book isn't about Columbus) might seem an odd choice for a popular science review site - why a history book here? Because, despite the UK subtitle (Rewriting the History of the New World) this isn't really a history book, it's prehistory and that makes it a mix of sciences - archaeology, sociology, ethnology, genetics and more.

Charles C. Mann does a superb job of setting right a mostly confused and misleading picture we have of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas. Most of us hold either a modified version of the traditional "uncivilized savages" view that was common until the 1960s - so obviously untrue when you consider the amazing structures these societies left behind - or the reactionary "politically correct" view of wise and noble beings living nature's way without disturbing the ecosystem. Mann shatters both pictures, bringing out the complexity of many Indian cultures and the way they managed and modified the landscape. (The term "Indians" is used in the book despite the obvious potential for confusion with the inhabitants of India, both because this is the name most commonly applied by current day American Indians to themselves, and because alternatives like "native American" are misleading.)

The sweep of the story and the many revelations are truly fascinating, and Mann does an excellent job of leading us by the hand through an inevitably big book with only one short section that isn't a delight for the reader. Whether he's relating an event that took place 1,000 years ago or a dig he personally experienced, Mann has the gift of making you feel that you are there, on the spot.

There are a couple of moans. He does rather overuse a technique of setting up a plausible situation, then saying "but it wasn't like that." And, rather worse, his enthusiasm occasionally drags him into making silly comparisons. A couple of times he asks experts an embarrassing "who was better?" question, and though he himself admits it's inappropriate, still reports the answers. And he is determined to prove some clearly untrue "politically correct" facts about Indian technology. "Contemporary research," he says, "suggests that the indigenous peoples in New England were not technologically inferior to the British..." His example to demonstrate this is to show that longbows were as effective as guns. Yet this clearly wasn't true, or the superb European longbows wouldn't have been superseded by guns. What he actually shows is that a good longbow in the hands of an expert is a match for a poor gun in the hands of an amateur - which says more about the comparison than the technology.

He is also very selective in comparing technologies, only doing it when it suits his particular slant. Soon after the bow/gun comparison, he notes how an Indian is caught out because "in Indian villages people could only be summoned by shouting" - the British use a cannon to raise the alert and foil his plan - yet there is no mention of comparative technology here.

However, given the opposite slant taken in the past, this urge to play up Indian technology is entirely understandable, and doesn't colour much of the book. Otherwise, this is a brilliant and startling exploration of the largely unrecognized great prehistoric cultures of the Americas, and is highly recommended.

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Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007