“The realization has finally begun to dawn that American society as a whole has suffered from ‘forked tongue’ history books… Year after year, the distortions, misrepresentations, and failure to tell the whole historical story foster erroneous and stereotyped thinking about Indians, and lead to still further misrepresentations, prejudice and contempt.”
Alvin Josephy, Learning Magazine, 1973
“…for the most part these revelations—the great antiquity, size, and sophistication of Indian societies—are new to the public… Why don’t intelligent non-specialists, the sort of people who know a bit about stem cells and read contemporary literature, already know something about how researchers think of the Americas before Columbus?… Why isn’t this material already in high school textbooks?”
Charles Mann, Afterword to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, 2006
In Charles Mann’s brilliant 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, he scans the results of hundreds of recent ethnographic, linguistic, archeological, anthropological, and biological studies. He calls and visits noted field scientists, travels with them along the Amazon and atop the Andes, and paints vivid pictures of what we now know about the pre-Columbian Americas. There are stories of monumental architecture, glyph writing systems, complicated leadership patterns, and information about the size, depth, and breadth of major agricultural settlements and civilizations. Importantly, there are many stories about the extent to which indigenous peoples managed their environments. They used fire, built soil, and found and adapted plants–corn, squash, legumes, etc.–to a wide range of climatic conditions–Mesoamerican corn taken all the way to northeastern North America, for example. .In an afterword to the paperback edition, Mann laments the fact that this knowledge—of digs, studies, discoveries—and new interpretations of pre-Columbian history have not penetrated textbooks and popular culture. At one university appearance, an American history professor innocently asks Mann where he can find all of this information. Mann is happy that he asks, but sad that the historian fails to realize that his answers are in the room with him—the archeologist in the next building, the anthropologist down the hall.
In the past, Mann says, it would have been easy to blame institutional racism for our limited and distorted views of the ancient Americas, but in an era of ethnic and gender studies, this seems unlikely. The “culprit,” he conjectures, is disciplinary boundaries. Charles Mann is a journalist, not beholden to any one academic discipline and anxious to learn from all of them. In this he is a direct descendent of Alvin Josephy, who was also a journalist, who cited linguistic and archeological studies as leading tools for learning about the past in his award winning 1968 book, The Indian Heritage of America. In my mind, Mann’s 1491 reads like its sequel.
Mann, and Josephy before him, says that we—most Americans—have settled on an archetypical North American Indian. He is a Plains Indian on a horse—though horses arrived very late in the history of human habitation of the continents. And hunting and gathering were the economies of some but not all indigenous western hemisphere civilizations. And he has disappeared, vanished into myth and story. Or he—and she—should have got on with it and become totally assimilated by now.
Mann, like Josephy before him, thinks that Indian history reaches back to antiquity, but lives in the present. And that Indian cultures—especially the ways they have and still do deal with agriculture, societal organization, and the “two-leggeds” place and roles in the whole of the world—have much to teach us today.
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