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Book Club: “1491” by Charles C. Mann

Posted on : Jan-20-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: We have postponed until Feb 7 due to bad weather.

Political Map of Pre-invasion America

America in 1491

People have lived in the Americas for at least 13,000 years, more likely 20 or even 30,000 years according to the latest archeological evidence. Only the last 500 years, the last 2%, of this history is well known to modern Americans. There are many reasons for this. The native cultures, artifacts and written records were systematically destroyed by the people Kurt Vonnegut calls the Sea Pirates, who arrived here in force starting in 1492. In addition to cultural imperialism and instigating total war (in the 20th Century sense), in places like New England, they brought diseases, plagues of measles, smallpox, hepatitis and other diseases you’ve probably never heard of. The population was decimated, not literally, but figuratively, which is much worse. For example, in central Mexico, the population declined from 25.2 million to 700,000 (97%) between 1518 (when Cortes arrived) and 1623.

Despite the destruction, some historical sources survived. Many of the Indian societies were literate, and even in places where most of the books were destroyed, stone monuments and buildings still exist. There are oral traditions of the survivors, early European records and written accounts by the children and grandchildren of the the survivors, and archeology, linguistic evidence, DNA evidence (both human and of domesticated plants and animals), epidemiology, patterns of trade and the spread of agriculture, and more. This book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by by Charles C. Mann, explores all this evidence to fill a huge gap in the knowledge of most Americans of their own history, and dispels many myths.

For example, the Americas were not sparsely populated before the Europeans arrived and some of the largest cities, road and trade networks in the world in the 15th century were in Central and South America, rivaling the largest in Europe and China at the time. There were vast engineering projects, ranging from mound building in the Midwest to water and irrigation projects in Central America and the Andes. Some of the projects were not so beneficial, but exhibit highly sophisticated organization, such as the when the Inkas forced migrations of thousands of people to achieve political ends.

Charles C. Mann is not a former defensive lineman for (ironically) the Washington Redskins. He is a science writer and contributing editor for Science, The Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, February 7 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary phaser blast. (Warning: I did remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (January 25) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

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