Sunday, 17 April 2011

1491 by Charles C Mann

In the late 15th century the Inkas controlled the largest empire in the world. It encompassed some amazingly inhospitable terrain - high mountain ranges, deserts, rainforests. Yet there was a road network covering 25,000 miles. Populations were moved around on a scale not seen again until Stalin. And there was no money. The government controlled everything.

It took fewer than 200 conquistadors to overthrow the Inka Empire. There were no Spanish casualties.

Pre-columbian American history is some of the most fascinating you'll ever read, but it's treated almost as an afterthought in most histories of the world, even modern ones. This book takes a much needed look at exactly what was going on over there, and why it all stopped. It turns out most of what we assume is wrong.

First off, the "new world" is a bit of a misnomer. The cities of the Norte Chico in Peru date back at least to the 30th century BC. That makes it the second oldest civilisation in history, after Sumer. And they had pyramids centuries before the Egyptians.

The scale of the history here is amazing. From the Mississippian mound builders to the ancient Olmecs with their massive, beautiful stone heads. From the awe-inspiring cities of the Maya and the Aztecs to the untold thousands living in the Amazonian rainforest, sustaining themselves in ways we're only beginning to understand.

If you've ever read your Jared Diamond you'll know what went wrong. Not so much the guns and the steel. More the germs. The Americas never really had any domesticable animals, so people never lived in close proximity to livestock. That means they didn't have generation after generation building up resistance to their diseases. The number of people who lived in the Americas in 1491 is still hotly disputed, but as much as 95% of the population may have been killed by smallpox.

This is how Pizarro was able to defeat to the Inka empire - the epidemic had caused untold deaths and then civil war. But it's also why in North America there built up a myth of the noble indian living in harmony with nature. We've heard about the herds of thousands of bison sweeping across the plain when the white man first arrived. That's because smallpox got there first and killed most of the people. The bison had the place to themselves.

There's lots to ponder here. Guilt, for one. In the main, this was accidental genocide. The conquistadors and pilgrims didn't know about germs and there's no way they could've predicted the epidemics. They thought the indians lived like degenerate savages, not realising that these people were like post-apocalyptic survivors. It was the Europeans' fault, but they didn't mean it.

The second issue if about the determinism of history. The book has many stories of history hanging on a horseshoe nail - the Mayflower pilgrims surviving their first winter, Cortes taking Tenochtitlan, Pizarro defeating the Inkas. But these American societies were doomed from the moment they first had contact with people who were, if not necessarily "more advanced," certainly more riddled with disease.

Yes, this book is without doubt heavily inspired by Jared Diamond (Collapse, as well as Guns, Germs and Steel) but I prefer 1491. Diamond is certainly fascinating and groundbreaking, but his writing can be a little flat. Mann is a journalist and knows how to tell a story from many different angles. He's also great on the vicious, petty squabbling which seems endemic among historians and archeologists.

I've actually been listening to more music recently (thank you all the bloggers on Advance With Sound) so I haven't been listening to books on tape. Inspired by the Gagarin anniversary, I've already started Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod. He of the "communism in space" fetish. So far, not enough communism.


Bryce said...

I don't know about those south americans... if the world ends in 2012 I'll be pretty pissed. So did they think the Spanish were Gods or were they just powerless to resist?

Lucky that most countries down there the people speak Spanish otherwise they would have had a lot more trouble understanding what was going on...

Joe said...

There's an interesting appendix on the three Mayan calendars. The 2012 thing seems to be a bunch of bollocks, and systems had already been set up in the long count to stretch tens of millions of years into the future.

The idea that the Spanish were gods may have been a minor issue with the triple kingdom (Aztecs) but it didn't have a big impact. Not like most of them dying of smallpox.

Ali said...

I have a copy of this, you've inspired me to move it up my list (I'm reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan at the moment which I'd recommend to anyone who had their 'Space' node tickled by Prof Brian Cox recently but went away unsatisfied.)

I must say I've really enjoyed all Jared Diamond books though. Guns, Germs & Steel was a massive thrill.

Joe said...

Ooh I've downloaded some Sagan which I'll have to have a crack at.

I bought this book at the british museum when I was going to meet you years back. I'd been looking at unsettling aztec sculptures of sacrificial victims who'd been filled up with hallucinogenics. They cut their heads off and played football with them. Not much on the games and rituals here, but it covers a lot of stuff and it's a great intro.