Monday, May 17, 2010

1491 and all that

I just finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and I can't recommend it enough as a thought-provoking and enthralling read. I was sorry to come to the end of the book, I wanted the author to go on and on. He says in his preface that he kept waiting for someone to write this book, and when his own son was in elementary school and the book still had not been written, he realized he would have to write it himself. He was appalled at the distortions and untruths his kid was learning in school, thanks to the conventional teaching of the history of the Americas.

As one might expect, a history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas includes a lot of atrocities at the hands of European "invaders", and of course the huge tragedy of the introduction of Eurasian diseases onto the American continents, but this book also provides a fascinating account of the uniquely American (as in the continents, not the nation) cultures, ideas and philosophies that were both lost and transmitted back to Eurasia. There is plenty of food for thought in this book!

One very thought-provoking idea discussed in this book is about Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) notions of personal liberty and democratic government. The Haudenosaunee Confederation was based on unique principles of governance particularly emphasizing gender equality (not total, but definitely way ahead of any other culture at the time), consensus, and respect for the personal liberty and equality of individuals. Mann suggests that the transmission of these ideas was almost immediate when Europeans first arrived on the shores of northeastern North America; European colonists defected to Indian settlements in large numbers, once they realized the profound differences in attitude. Colonists were expected to respect their "betters", Indians had no such concept and found that expectation quite bizarre.

It was inevitable that these subversive ideas would make there way back to Europe, and Mann suggests that the great revolutions of democracy, liberty and equality subsequently occurring in many European countries can be traced back to the introduction of those North American Indian traditions. Certainly they were incorporated into the American Constitution, and they were very likely the inspiration for the American Revolution in the first place. Whether you agree or disagree with this formulation of history, Mann's chapter on this interpretation is fascinating and provoking.

Another idea that I found personally fascinating was Mann's description of the huge impact of textile arts on Central and South American thought, technology and politics. Mann says that in feats of engineering, Eurasians emphasized the force of compression, Andean and Mesoamerican cultures emphasized compression. The archway, an architectural feature absent from American monumental architecture, is an example of how Europeans employ the force of compression. Andeans on the other hand built rope bridges that scared the pants off the Spanish conquistadors. Andeans solved basic engineering problems through the manipulation of fibres rather than creating and joining hard wooden or metal objects. There is controversial evidence that Andean cultures had an elaborate and sophisticated form of "writing" based on fibre, the Incan khipu or knotted strings. Agriculture may have first been invented in South America, about the same time as agriculture in Sumer, but it was for the culture of cotton, not food. The first intensively agricultural society in the Americas (the Norte Chico of Peru) had a diet based solely on food from the sea, they practiced irrigation, terracing and all the other techniques of farming for the production of cotton.

Indian civilization was unique. On the Eurasian continent, there were a very few centres of innovation where agriculture and urban living were first invented, the rest of that vast continent begged, borrowed or stole the results. Over thousands of years Eurasians and Africans traded ideas and inventions, philosophies and religious traditions. the American continents were isolated, there was no trade of ideas with other continents until the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans, and unfortunately they brought diseases which so devastated American civilizations that any fruitful trade in ideas was abruptly and almost permanently cut off.

We like to think that European technologies, particularly the technologies of warfare, were so superior to American indigenous technologies that it was inevitable that Europeans would defeat any defense by the locals. Mann shows that actually this might not be the case at all. He cites accounts of the early conquistadors in South America quickly realizing that the cotton armour of the Inkans was superior to their own metal armour, and that an Inkan with a slingshot could outperform a conquistador with a gun. What the conquistadors had on their side was bizarre Inkan politics (from a European perspective of course), the diseases that preceded their arrival, and the initial surprise and shock of horse-mounted warriors. The Inkan warriors could have survived that last one, they quickly developed techniques for dealing with horses, but in combination with their vulnerability to devastating epidemics and their own political infighting (this may seem outrageous, but they were ruled by mummies, the mummies were kept and treated as if alive, and the destruction of a mummy king could devastate an entire Inkan faction) the conquistadors quickly overran and destroyed their centuries-old civilization.

Mann suggests that what we moderns think of as wilderness is actually not. He proposes that huge swathes of the two American continents were actually vast ranches and gardens developed and maintained over thousands of years by indigenous peoples. When Europeans settled eastern North America, the land had only recently been abandoned by native people killed off by disease. The forests were actually relatively new rebound vegetation after native peoples abandoned their farms and villages. What the first arrivals on the northeastern coasts saw was a vast cemetery, but they did not recognize it as such, they thought it was pristine wilderness. The Amazon basin was intensively farmed and settled, Amazonians practiced agrofrestry and a methodology for soil creation and augmentation unmatched anywhere in the world, now or ever. So-called traditional slash-and-burn subsistence (swidden) farming was never traditional, rather it was a survivor's response to the destruction of their once-productive way of life. Further, it could not have been practiced at all with stone tools, only the introduction of European steel tools allowed swidden farming to be practiced.

Mann laments the devastation of disease and conquest on American civilization. Not only was it a huge loss of human life, but a huge loss of cultural treasures that could have been shared with the rest of the world. He talks about the cross-fertilization of different societies around the world and the enrichment of human life and culture resulting from that process. The Americas were unique, civilizations developed in isolation based on principles quite different in some ways and very similar in other ways to civilizations on other continents. Much of that was destroyed and lost forever, and we all could have benefitted so much from those lost lifeways and knowledge. Whatever can be done to restore and preserve what remains can still add to the quality of human life and the array of potential solutions for modern environmental, social and political challenges.

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