1491: Filling in the Blanks

Western scholars have written histories of the world since at least the twelfth century. As children of their own societies, these early historians naturally emphasized the culture they knew best, the culture their readership most wanted to hear about. But over time they added the stories of other places in the world: chapters about China, India, Persia, Japan, and other places. Researchers tipped their hats to non-Western accomplishments in the sciences and arts. Sometimes the effort was grudging or minimal, but the vacant reaches in the human tale slowly contracted.

One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.

β€”Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and already I am amazed. Of course I knew about the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca, but apparently they are only the tip of the iceberg. The jungles, plains, and mountains of Central and South America are only just beginning to give up their secrets. Massive urban complexes have recently been discovered in unlikely places, and there are surely more to come. Perhaps we should call this the Age of Rediscovery.

[Techie note: I’m trying a new quotation style. The default style is too difficult to read, don’t you think?]

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6 comments on “1491: Filling in the Blanks

  1. Stefanie says:

    Very interesting! Wasn’t it recently it was discovered than Mayan women were very important leaders in the community and the Spanish destroyed much of the evidence and changed the story? Or maybe I’m just making that up? I like your red italic. Do you have to code it each time to override the template’s css or do you have a secret? πŸ™‚

    • Sylvia says:

      It’s possible the Spanish just didn’t notice the Mayan women’s role. One theme already coming up in the book is that the Europeans simply didn’t recognize the cultural systems of the indegenous Americans because things didn’t look familiar. For instance there were no fences around fields (since there were no domestic animals to keep in or out) so the Europeans figured there was no land ownership. Obviously language is a big barrier so the misunderstandings were really unavoidable. It’s easy for us to criticize in retrospect but it may not be realistic to expect a bunch of sailors and entrepreneurs to be scientific anthropologists. An interesting factoid I got from the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast is that early European maps of North America did not include Indian villages, but Indian maps did not include European settlements either, even large ones like St. Louis. Bridging worlds is harder than it seems, I think.

      And thank you for commenting on the italic. It is really supposed to be brown but depending on the monitor it can look reddish. It looks better on my netbook than on my desktop. I might try another colour or just skip it. I just used the formatting buttons in the WordPress editor to indent and colour the text. I may end up buying CSS access and just styling the blockquotes the way I like. I generally like this theme, just not the blockquote, and also the small text.

  2. Speaking of Mayan women as very important in their society, just found this out:

    β€’ Among the Onondagas, a Native American Indian tribe, it was the women who chose the chief of the tribe.

    β€’ The women of the Oglala Sioux, another Native American Indian tribe, have a separate spiritual language, Hambloglagia, taught only to and spoken only by women.

    Also, just found out that the Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Onondagas are part of, is the oldest living democracy on the North American continent!

    It is indeed understandable that the written account of history is biased towards the history of Western civilization, since most of them were written by Western authors. But I’m glad that this bias towards the West in our written accounts of history is being rectified by allowing facts such as these to surface…

    ~Matt

    • Sylvia says:

      That is very interesting, especially about the secret language. I’ve heard of something similar in China. There is still so much we don’t know about all the peoples of the Earth!

  3. emperorbjt says:

    Sylvia – I read this book about one year ago. I too was amazed. There was so much cultural diversity in the America’s. Thinking about it I suppose that the statement is obvious, but this book illustrates that fact.

    You mention so many societies in the post and comments. Mann brings so many to light. I was particularly amazed by the culture of the Mound Builders. It was a very significant North American society and now so few of us know much about it.

    Another book relating to pre European North American peoples that I would recommend is Empire of the Summer Moon. In it, S. C. Gwynne paints a fascinating picture of Comanches culture both before and after their direct contact with Europeans Empire of the Summer Moon

    • Sylvia says:

      I’m glad to hear from someone who read the book too. I’m reading 1493 at the same time too. πŸ˜€ Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check it out.

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