New World Symphony

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

by Charles C. Mann
Knopf, 465 pp., $30.00

Charles C. Mann is a journalist and his new book, while not without flaws, is a journalistic masterpiece: lively, engaging, and full of the latest information about the peoples who lived in the Americas before Columbus joined the two sides of the Atlantic together. Mann draws on wide reading in recent scholarly writing, supplemented by travel to the principal archaeological sites and landscapes involved, as well as by interviews with many of the writers who have challenged older notions about the pre-Columbian past.

Recent discoveries, especially in the Amazon region, make some new ideas irresistible; in other cases Mann summarizes recent controversies without committing himself to either side. In general he argues that pre-Columbian American history was just as diverse and as complicated as anything in the Old World, and that Indian skills were not inferior to European skills. He concludes that there were two different worlds, separate but equal.

Mann starts by making it clear that he is not presenting “a systematic, chronological account of the Western Hemisphere’s cultural and social developments before 1492.” Instead, he says, his book explores what he believes to be the “three main foci” of the new findings: Indian demography, Indian origins, and Indian ecology. He could not possibly be comprehensive, he writes. “Instead I chose my examples from cultures that are among the best documented, or have drawn the most recent attention, or just seemed the most intriguing.”

The book begins by naming and locating many of the different peoples of South and North America with whom he is concerned, from Chile to Alaska. Mann then addresses the question of the size of the Indian population, not with demographic tables, birth and death rates, and the like, but indirectly through narratives of what happened in three regions: Massachusetts before and after the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620; Peru before and after Pizarro captured the Inka monarch in 1532; and Central and North America before and after Cortés and De Soto conquered and explored Mexico and what is now the southeastern United States.

Mann proceeds to describe the Pilgrim landing from an Indian perspective, with surprising and to me quite new detail. His first paragraphs illustrate the tone and precision of his account:

On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampa-noag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.

Massosoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated—indeed the foreigners ahead now occupied one of…

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