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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

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As every school child knows, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered the New World. But few people have an accurate idea of the society that was there before the Europeans arrived. Charles C. Mann, a leading science writer, has decided to remedy that, with his new book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf). The prepub reviews have been glowing. "Unless you're an anthropologist, it's likely that everything you know about American prehistory is wrong," trumpets Kirkus Reviews. "An excellent, and highly accessible, survey of America's past." Galley Girl reached Mann at home in Amherst, Massachusetts:

Galley Girl: What drew you to this subject?

Charles Mann: I had always been aware that people lived here before my European ancestors arrived. But it wasn't until I kind of stumbled across the Mayan ruins 20 some years ago that I realized these people had incredibly complicated and interesting societies. I was just curious, and I tried to arrange my reporting so that I would be able to go and visit more and more of these places. Then about 10 -15 years ago, I realized that there was this whole world of archeologists and geographers and anthropologists who had come to conclusions about Indian societies that were completely different from what I had learned in school, and for that matter, what my son was learning in school.

GG: Geographically, you're dealing with all of the Americas, right?

CM: Yes.

GG: What did Columbus find when he got here?

CM: What Columbus landed on were these very, very populous islands [in] the Caribbean, which were just jammed with people—very heavily populated agricultural societies with most of the place covered with farms. Soon after, people came to central Mexico, which was then possibly the most heavily populated place on earth, ruled by this very aggressive, rapidly expanding empire. That's what's normally called the Aztecs. There were all of these other societies. There were these large Mayan states that were basically in the Yucatan...Soon after that, [the explorers] went to Peru, and there was the Inca Empire, which stretched across a distance that if you put it on the map of Europe, would go from Stockholm to Cairo. It really was an enormous enterprise, possibly the world's biggest state at that time.

GG:Are you expecting that some people will say this is just a politically correct view, that this is revisionist history?

CM: In a way, it's re-revisionism. if you actually read the Spanish chronicles and the first English settlers' accounts and the French accounts, I'm just saying what they saw. I'm returning back to what they saw. Politically correct implies a kind of left-wing imagining of the Americas as this kind of Edenic place, a wilderness in which all of these noble savages are treading lightly. It really wasn't like that at all. These were people who were skilled, successful land managers, who used the land heavily, had enormous populous societies and lived in some of the world's biggest cities.

GG: How can the history of it have come down to us in such a garbled way?

CM: Part of it is that the Spaniards did what they could, as did in lesser form our own ancestors, to obscure what they saw. And part of it is that these diseases, these huge epidemics, swept through these areas, depopulating them incredibly, so that people would move into areas that had already been depopulated, and were really unable to see what had been there. Following that, these ecosystems underwent huge change. So areas that had been previously been kept clear and full of Indian farms suddenly reforested. There was a tremendous tumult in a period of 200 years [c. 1500-1700]. The result of it was people just didn't know what had been there before. It was hidden from their view.

GG: Were these people, who lived in a sophisticated society, wronged by the Europeans who showed up on the scene?

CM: Well, it's pretty complicated. These were, in many cases, very aggressive, expanionistic societies. When you look at the Triple Alliance, or the Aztecs, as they're commonly called, these are rough customers. And in the Spanish, they met other rough customers.

GG: I was surprised that you use the word "Indian," rather than Native American. Why that decision?

CM: A couple of reasons. First, I think, without exception, every Indian I have spoken with uses that term. Second, "Native American" is a term that is used almost entirely in the United States and in Canada. Indians in Latin America and South America don't use that term. Finally, I just think there are some problems with the term. Everybody who's born in the Americas is a native American, right? For this reason, a lot of the American Indian movement activists rejected the term in favor of "Indian."

GG: What kind of response do you expect to get from people who had no idea that the things you're reporting are true?

CM: These subjects are controversial enough that I do expect, and have already received, some knee-jerk reactions: on the right, saying that this [is a way of saying] that the origins of this nation aren't Christian, or some kind of politically correct glorifying of savages; and on the left, saying that I am trashing them by saying they are violent, and not perfect stewards of nature. In fact, Indians were human beings, just like anybody else. Like anybody else, they did some absolutely amazing stuff, and some stuff that makes you roll your eyes.

For an excerpt of the book, go to the author's website.

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  • Andrea Sachs
  • The author of 1491 talks about why everything you know about the New World before Columbus is wrong