Top positive review
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Should be required reading...
on 3 April 2012
Rarely has a non-fiction book engrossed me so. This is an intensely interesting read, summarising cogently many decades of archaeological, anthropological, botanical, biological and historical debate.
It is incredible to me that the age-old myth about the Americas as being a virtually empty 'pristine wilderness' is still promulgated: a land inhabited by tribes who lived so lightly on the land that they had no civilisations, no cities, none of the hallmarks of what we would call 'civilisation', people who had lived the same way for hundreds and thousands of years, with little change of evolution. As Mann argues in this book, almost every part of that statement is utterly wrong. And yet even today it is the myth that seems to have taken root. And to a large extent part of the reason that myth has been promulgated and believed is because it lets Europeans off the hook, so to speak - it makes Columbus and Cortes and the Pilgrim Fathers justified in retrospect, because if the land was empty, the argument went, it was okay to move in. Right?
Except the land wasn't empty. Far from it. There is a great amount of evidence that shows that the Americas may once have been the most populated part of the globe. When Europe was still mostly an empty, ice-choked expanse, people were living in the Americas in cities, thousands of people, even millions. Thinks of the Maya, the Incas, the Aztecs. And what happened to them, that by the time of the European colonisation, the land was seen as empty?
In this book Mann explores the impact of European diseases on the people of the Americas, and it's incredibly sobering to read. Scientists have estimated that the death tolls could have reached up to 95% of the population, that by the time Cortes and his man made their way through the Americas, the diseases they brought with them could have spread so far ahead that whole populations, whole civilisations could have been wiped out. It's hard to imagine. You can understand how any civilisation could collapse with such a catastrophic epidemic.
He also argues that the pristine wilderness reported in so many early accounts was precisely a result of the wiping out of the native peoples. If you remove an apex predator, species lower on the food chain thrive. He argues that the reason early accounts report of immense herds of buffalo, massive flocks of passenger pigeon, was not because this was the way the continent had always been, but because this was Nature's reaction to the removal of these species' predators and competitors. So when ecologists talk about the damage colonisation did to the ecosystem, they may be harking back to something that never existed in the first place. The native peoples shaped the landscape around in much the same way we do now - perhaps with more of a long-term view and with more balance and stability - but they left their traces, just the same.
I could not put this down. When textbooks talk about the ancient civilisations in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, it seems criminal that they pass over Mesoamerica in just a few paragraphs. This should be required reading.