Sunday, May 8, 2011


Visiting Dumbarton Oaks last week, I admired their collection of pre-Colombian art as I pondered the societies that shaped it and their predilection (shaped by religious motivation) for human sacrifice.

As Charles Mann points out in his fascinating portrait of pre-Colombian societies, 1491, at the point where Aztecs (by Cortes' estimation) were killing 3,000-4,000 people by this method, England was executing possibly 10 times as many as presumed criminals. Both sanctifying order (in different ways) by displays of mortal power. It is nice moment of perspective setting.

The book as a whole seeks to explore 'new' evidence (some stretching back into the 1920s but not yet emergent) of what the Americas may have been like prior to conquest - and how this picture differs radically from the one that still inhabits textbooks (and popular imagination) of a relatively empty place (at least in the north) and of fragile 'civilizations' in the south whose inferior status was attested to in their rapid collapse.

What emerges is a very different picture of landscapes long fashioned by human habitation, sophisticated but different cultures, carrying very substantial and complex societies. No part of this picture is non-controversial - and one of the side 'attractions' of the book is the internecine wars between academics as they grapple with rival theories with a distinct lack of objectivity and lashings of enthusiasm (for good or ill)!

But it does appear relatively clear that the Americas were inhabited for much longer than previously thought, that they separately developed urban cultures and that they worked out, most successfully and originally, how to live in very different, often challenging landscapes (not without periodic failures). They were also as fond of warfare as their fellow humans - though tended towards the Italian city state limited form rather than the Tamerlane sweep all before in brutal conquest form!

Most interesting was speculation on the Amazon - and the striking ways in which people may have shaped a living agriculture that supported significant levels of population in ways that have continuing relevance. The methods of soil creation making raised beds utilizing pottery shards and charcoal are strikingly 'innovative' and ripe for reinvention and deployment.

And the collapse of this - primarily the unintended consequences of populations not resistant to Eurasian diseases, compounded by the sheer brutalities of occupation, that divested people not only of their lives but by the extent of the collapse patterns of meaning as well.

It is a hauntingly sad unfolding of lost opportunities of cultural interchange and the brutal realities of colonialism.

It is a beautifully written book - the science is lucidly explained and the arguments balanced. You know where the author stands but the counter-arguments are boldly and fairly stated.

And the continuing mysteries - for example whence comes maize? How was it effectively engineered from its distant relative? Much dispute, no complete answers to the origin of probably the most successful crop ever domesticated...

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