Charles Mann would certainly be the first to admit that 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is now getting "old".
It was published 15 years ago, after all, and even though Mann has revised it a tad, that's a significant period of time, and the revelations are certainly no longer new.
With a (slightly) deeper interpretation, however, one of Mann's major points is that books such of these are of necessity always old, even the moment after they are written:
Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photograph, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs -- a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth's surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. To be sure, some researches have vigorously attacked the new findings as wild exaggerations. ("We have simply replaced the old myth [of untouched wilderness] with a new one," scoffed geographer Thomas Vale, " the myth of the humanized landscape.") But after several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging.
When I started reading 1491, I had no idea what genetic microsatellite analysis was, and I had to look it up (this is a pretty approachable overview), but 1491 isn't really a book about how anthropologists, historians, and other similar disciplines operate.
Rather, it's (at least) two other books:
- It's a lively and entertaining look at what we currently know about what the Americas were when the enormous waves of immigration from Renaissance Europe began in the late 1400's
- But it's also an attempt to help you, the reader, become a better consumer of the information you receive about how we got to this point, how the world is changing, and what it might mean for what you think you know.
Much of 1491 flies by, Mann leads us at a frenetic pace through much memorable history:
Dazzled as he was, Cortes was also aware that with a single command Motecuhzoma could order his army "to obliterate all memory of us." The Spaniards counteracted this thread by inventing a pretext to seize the tlatoani in his own palace, making him first their captive and then their puppet.
In both Europe and Mesoamerica kings ruled by the dispensation of the heavens. The Mexica reacted to the sacrilegious abduction of their leader with the same baffled horror with which Europeans later reacted to Cromwell's execution of Charles I in 1649. Not wanting to act in a way that could result in Motecuhzoma's death, the Mexica took seven months to mount a counterattack. Fearing the worst, the debased tlatoani made a begging public appearance on behalf of the Spanish. He soon died, either murdered by the Spaniards (according to Mexica accounts) or slain by his own countrymen (as Spanish chronicles tell it). Soon after came the long-delayed assault. Under the leadership of a vigorous new tlatoani, Cuitlahuac, the Indians force the invaders into narrow alleys where horses were of little advantage. Under a pitiless hail of spears, darts, and arrows, Cortes and his men retreated down the long causeways that linked the island city to the mainland. In a single brutal night the Mexica utterly vanquished Cortes, killing three-quarters of his men. Although the Alliance destroyed causeways in front of the Spaniards, the remnants of the invaders were able to cross the gaps because they were so choked with the dead that the men could walk on the bodies of their countrymen. Because the Mexica did not view the goal of warfare as wiping out enemies to the last man, they did not hunt down the last Spaniards. A costly mistake: Cortes was among the escapees.
A man of unfathomable determination, Cortes never thought of giving up. He persuaded several other vassal states to join his anti-Alliance alliance with Tlaxcala. Negotiating furiously, he assembled a force of as many as 200,000 men and built thirteen big ships in an audacious plan to assault Tenochtitlan from the water.
When Cortes and his Indian allies finally attacked, the Mexica resisted so fiercely despite their weakness that the siege has often been described as the costliest battle in history -- casualty estimates range up to 100,000.
Yet, I suspect that Mann began his book fascinated by the first topic, and set out to write that "first book," but along the way he became even more fascinated by how challenging it is to avoid thinking that we now know everything there is to know about the past, and so he ended up writing that "second book" as well, trying to open our eyes to just how little we know, and just how alert we should be to the possibility that what we think we know, we do not in fact know at all:
At first he did nothing about his observation. Historical demography was not supposed to be his field. Six years later, in 1959, he surveyed more archives in Hermosilla and found the same disparity. By this point he had almost finished his doctorate at Cornell and had been selected for Holmberg's project. The choice was almost haphazard: Dobyns had never been to Peru.
Peru, Dobyns learned, was one of the world's cultural wellsprings, a place as important to the human saga as the Fertile Crescent. Yet the area's significance had been scarcely appreciated outside the Andes, partly because the Spaniards so thoroughly ravaged Inka culture, and partly because the Inka themselves, wanting to puff up their own importance, had actively concealed the glories of the cultures before them. Incredibly, the first full history of the fall of the Inka empire did not appear until more than three hundred years after the events in chronicled: William H Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru, published in 1847.
Read 1491 because it's wildly entertaining and endlessly engrossing.
But remember 1491 because it makes you a better reader, and a better thinker, in general.
One way or another, however, read 1491.