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Book Review: 1491

 Having read Charles Mann's 1493 (and reviewed here) I was eager to read his first book in this series, 1491 [Amazon Affiliate Link].

1491 is the study of the Americas in the time before Columbus.

He is rightfully dismissive of how school textbooks cover the topic.  Despite many new discoveries since I was in elementary school, textbooks for both elementary and high school today, as they did in my day, tend to gloss over the accomplishments of those here before the Europeans.

In school in the 60s and 70s, I learned that people came to the Americas from Siberia via a land bridge over the Bering Strait.

New discoveries made in Chile have man there about the time the first land bridge was open.  It is not possible for man to have crossed the land bridge when it first opened and make it all the way to the south part of South America by the time man has been proven to be there.


That opens up the unanswered question, then, of how  the first people arrived before the land bridge opened up, and over which there were several waves of immigration.

The most likely is coastal sailors making their from Siberia, across, and then along the coast.

A radical idea is for early Australians, or a common ancestor of ours and early Australians, making their way by boat along the edge of Antarctica to South America.

School textbooks also tend to acknowledge Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas and be dismissive of the rest of the two continents.

Again new data Norte Chico along the west coast of Peru was not only America's first city, when it arose about 3000BC, but that if may have risen before cities in the rest of the world.  As one scientist quoted said, "They may have to stop calling it the New World."

Also interesting is that Norte Chico was one of the three places on earth where government developed without the model of another government.  In other words, it sprung up on its own.  They did not have knowledge, say, of a government before in Mesopotamia, for example.

While respect is given by textbooks to civilizations that arose in Mexico and Central and South America, the Mound Builders of North America are glossed over in school textbooks.

I was astonished at how widespread they were.  And the largest Mound Builders city near the confluence of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers was a busy and vibrant place with communications with other, often distant, North Americans.

Revealed too in this book is how European disease swept ahead of exploring Europeans so when explorers did reach and conquer indigenous peoples, the population had already been decimated by some estimates by 95 percent.  It was easy to underestimate what 1000 could accomplish when in reality there had been 20,000 people in the same area just years before.

And while we can see the massive terraces Incas and their predecessors made in places like Peru, actually many people in the Americas were actively terraforming their environment before European disease struck.  Terraces in Peru, active controlled burning in North America, even creation of enhanced soil in the Amazon. Instead of living in balance with the existing environment, man knew how to modify the environment for their own use on both continents.

It was in the last pages of the book that truly set me on my ear.  I was born in a small town in Pennsylvania near the New York border.  It was a rough, wooded and hilly area.  The town I was born in, lived for seven years and visited often afterwards, was not settled until 1816.

It is not an easy area to extract a living.  Oil was first drilled in Titusville, about sixty miles away, bringing wealth to the area, but that soon moved away.

Timber was harvested about the turn of the 19th to 20th century bringing new immigrants to the area whose grandchildren I went to school with in the 60s.

For a while in the 80s and 90s, the fifth largest cable company in the US was headquartered in the area, bringing in new money, until the company was sold and the headquarters moved.

An abundance of natural gas and other raw materials have given the area a manufacturing base in glass production, giving the area its most consistent form of income.

A beautiful area and a nice place to raise a family, it did not appear to have a great presence on the world stage of accomplishment or influence.

I remember learning in Mrs. Hermanson's Second Grade about how, before the white man, this location for the town-to-be was important for Indians transferring their canoes from the areas numerous creeks to the Allegheny River.  While the river was itself the size of a creek there since the Allegheniess headwaters were only a few miles away, as I got older I came to understand the location of the town was an important way for Indians of the area, including those in Upstate New York, to be part of the vast North American river system.  From the Allegheny canoes could reach the Ohio, and ultimately the Mississippi and the Missouri.

Short overland journeys to the East would bring them to the Susquehanna and communication with the East Coast and Chesapeake Bay.

I came away from Second Grade knowing the Indians who had lived, in fact still lived, in the area are the Senecas.

What I learned in those last pages of 1491 was that the Senecas had formed an alliance with four other tribes : Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk.

Each tribe would send members to the capital village as it were, where the city of Syracuse, New York, is now.  These members had to decide unanimously for any proposed change.

What is remarkable is that scientists have now determined that this body, which still meets today, began about 1250 AD.

That makes this ongoing Legislature the second oldest on the planet.  Only Iceland's Althing from 950 AD is older.

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