November 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Columbus may not have actually discovered the Americas, but his voyage changed their landscape forever — and divided history in such a way that the history of the two continents prior to his arrival is only currently being introduced into popular history.
At a talk today at Williams College journalist Charles C. Mann will focus on “The Pristine Myth,” a term referring to the idea that Christopher Columbus landed on an untouched wilderness that begged for European management of it and the people living there.
In Mann’s book “1491,” he argues that not only was the New World “not untouched” but it was heavily touched by the native populace. However, he says, the impacts of their stewardship of the land is still felt today, and their methods are worth investigation to correct ecological missteps pulled from the European tradition.
“You had a whole lot of people here — millions and millions of people — on separate paths of development, and it seems to me implausible that all these people over all these years would not have come up with anything that was worth our paying attention to,” he said during a recent interview.
Mann’s research concluded that the Americas were far more densely populated than we now believe, with diverse societies and inhabitants that were more sophisticated in sustainable land management than their European conquerors. Mann also uncovered advances in math and science made by the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans that were equitable to advances in Europe and Asia — a revelation that speaks to the idea that what passed for primitivism to the European eye was entirely skin deep.
Mann cites 150 years of anthropology and archaeology that have released a tidal wave of knowledge about the pre-Columbian world, but he also credits an unusual source — the conquerors themselves.
“The immediate conquerors wrote pretty interesting history,” Mann said. “If you go to the original Spanish sources and the original Colonial sources — English, French, Spanish, whatever — you’ll find all kinds of stuff that dropped out of our history books, and so it’s really a surprise.
“Sixteenth-century Spaniards knew how to count and knew what they were seeing to a large extent, and they wrote about it. They described the capital of the Aztec empire as the largest and finest that they had ever seen — a whole bunch of them describe it that way. At some point you have to give careful to the idea that it may have actually been the largest and finest city they had ever seen.” « Read the rest of this entry »