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(DV) Petersen: Before Columbus -- Revisionism and Enlightenment







Before Columbus: Revisionism and Enlightenment
by Kim Petersen
January 2, 2006

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

by Charles C. Mann 

(Knopf, August 2005)

Hardcover: 480 pages

ISBN: 140004006X


“How much grandeur would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!”

-- Charles Mann 


In 1776, the lauded Declaration of Independence, reflecting the prideful prejudice of its signers, affronted the Original Peoples [1] of Turtle Island as “merciless Indian savages.” To open the “New World” to colonization, it was deemed necessary to demonize the original occupants.


In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles Mann deftly synthesizes new and old information from paleo-societies in the western hemisphere. Mann takes readers back to the time before Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus and his crew had touched the shore of Guanahani, what Columbus arrogantly rechristened San Salvador. Contemporary images of Original Peoples have been much shaped by the early impressions of Europeans. Columbus, however, was of oblique mind about the Original Peoples.


In his log entry of 26 December 1492, he recorded that when one of his ships, the Santa María, became grounded, the native “king” and his people “displayed great haste and diligence” to unload the ship and secure its possessions. The people of Hispaniola even provided accommodation for the crew. Yet the pious Columbus mused: “I am sure that I could subjugate the entire island -- which I believe is larger than Portugal with twice the population -- with the men that I have in my company [about 90]. These Indians are naked, unarmed, and cowardly beyond help.”  


“Cowardly beyond help”? How should the use of arms against an unarmed and peaceful human be described?  


Mann’s 1491 proffers a radically different perspective of what Indigenous societies were like in the western hemisphere prior to the arrival of Columbus, who Mann acknowledges was not the first European to venture to Turtle Island. [2] The book is a well crafted, scientifically and humanistically based work that makes noticeable effort to incorporate conflicting views.

The reader is taken on a journey throughout the western hemisphere and as far back in time as to the point when humans first reached the hemisphere. Mann delves illuminatingly into this topic of major academic controversy. 1491 is replete with lively disagreement among researchers that often strays from the boundaries of refined scholarship -- into condescension to those who are not academic specialists and into the derogation of colleagues with competing hypotheses, arising from the unscientific propensity to protect personal or pet theories.


With personalities serving as a backdrop, Mann examines the evidence pushing the appearance of Original Peoples in the western hemisphere back beyond the commonly hypothesized arrival over Beringia (the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska) during the last Ice Age about 15,000 years ago. He challenges the notion that Original Peoples all sprang from one initial stock of Asians. New evidence indicates Original Peoples arrived in the hemisphere from at least 33,000 to 43,000 years ago and that the newcomers arrived in possibly three waves. 


Given the large time frame, it seems only natural to tackle the notion that the hemisphere was sparsely populated -- a notion contrary to Columbus’s first impression; for example, the Genoan wrote on 24 December 1492: “The people are so numerous …” In fact, Mann argues, the pre-1492 population in the western hemisphere was likely higher than in Europe. 


The early population estimate is important to gain insight into the scope of the genocidal tsunami that swept over the Original Peoples in the hemisphere. It is out of this ensanguined calamity that European-imposed entities like Canada and the United States were sired.  


The cause of the near annihilation of the Original Peoples has often been attributed to their backwardness; they were unable to repulse the onslaught of Europeans with steel firearms. Mann argues against this notion, providing evidence to demonstrate that the Original Peoples had technologically advanced civilizations to rival any in Europe. The Original Peoples had discovered “zero,” performed advanced astronomy, and developed precise chronological measurement by calendar. Indigenous agriscience was pre-eminent (for example, the development of maize is described as “arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering”). Terra forming was carried out to an extraordinary extent: mound building, pyramid building, canal and irrigation construction, erection of cities, and the astute use of fire to transform the landscape. 


Of the advanced terra forming by Original Peoples, Mann writes: “Rather than adapt Nature, they created it.” The prairies of central Turtle Island and the wilderness of Amazonia are depicted as the purposeful result of fire wielding by Original Peoples. Indeed, Amazonia is described as one big orchard!  


Enviable forms of civilization had been developed such as the “vertical socialism” practiced by the Inka: a currency-less, non-market economy where all the demands of society were met and where hunger was unknown. 


Mann exposes myths throughout the book. One was that the Inka empire -- the greatest empire in the world in 1491, bounded the Andes and Pacific Ocean in western South America -- was easily defeated by the few men and armaments of the Spanish conquistadors. The downfall was due to many factors but primary was the extreme susceptibility of Original Peoples to disease brought from the “Old World.” Particularly lethal was smallpox.  


What is the culpability of Europeans for the sweeping destruction of Original Peoples by disease, to which they also succumbed in smaller numbers? Mann writes, “Coming from places that had suffered many such experiences, Europeans fully grasped the potential consequences of smallpox. … but its actual impact, which they could not control, was in the hands of God.” 


Another myth busted is the inordinate penchant for public executions in the Triple Alliance (Mann points out the common designation of “Aztec” is incorrect). Mann notes that, comparatively, European nations were “more bloodthirsty” when it came to executing their citizens. 


Mann introduces readers to myriad Indigenous civilizations such as at Norte Chico in what is now Peru, Tiwanuku and Wari at the high altitude Lake Titicaca, Cahokia in the Mississippi basin, and that centered on the six-nation confederacy of the Haudenosaunee in the Great Lakes region. 


The great spiritual leader Deganawidah (Two River Currents Flowing Together) with Ayenwatha (Hiawatha of poetic and Disney fame) promoted a message of peace and helped lay the conditions for the uniting of five (later six) nations into a confederacy. The Haudenosaunee produced the Kaianerekowa (Great Law of Peace) that is said by many to be the template upon which the US Constitution was based. Mann, however, finds the consensus-based Kaianerekowa with its universal suffrage and communal ownership as being distinctly at odds with the US Constitution, which implicitly, from a libertarian viewpoint, is much inferior to the Kaianerekowa. 


Mann’s revisionist book buttresses an important lesson for us all: that the desire for knowledge must not be bridled but rather encouraged. 1491 rivetingly documents the efforts of researchers curious and brave enough to question inculcation, to search for and uncover new evidence, and to formulate new hypotheses that cast history in a compelling, new light. For it is through devotion to epistemology and truth, spurred by a healthful skepticism for established doctrine, that the boundaries of human knowledge are expanded. It is through skeptical and open-minded inquiry that enlightenment is attained and humanity may advance. 


Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi'kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org.



[1] Mann stays with the term “Indian” derived from the geographical deficiency of Christopher Columbus. Mann deals admirably with the loaded words in identifying the primordial peoples of the western hemisphere and while cognizant of the deficiencies of the term “Indian,” he stays with it since “every native person” he has met used the term. Dutch professor of anthropology Harald Prins writes, “Ethnicity involves self-ascription.” In this vein, I use the preferred term “Original Peoples” as told to me by Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) warrior Splitting the Sky. In addition to overcoming Columbus’s ethnic nescience, this term also solves the problem, as Mann pointed out, that not every Indigenous group in the hemisphere is “Indian.” 

[2] Farley Mowat, West Viking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (McClelland and Stewart, 1965) Without a doubt, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach the shores of “North America.” Generally, the Vikings are considered the first Europeans to do so although there is a case for a Celtic settlement of Greenland that precedes the Vikings. There are at least two credible accounts of Vikings reaching continental Turtle Island late in the tenth century. Bjarni Herjolfsson is thought to have reached landfall in Vinland (probably Avalon coast from Cape Race to Cape St. Francis of Newfoundland) after riding out a polar nor’easter in 985. In the summer of 982, Erik Thorvaldsson explored Vestri Obygdir -- what is believed to be the “Western Wilderness” of Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island). Mowat contends that this marks the first European “of whom any record still exists, to discover what was for all technical reasons, the continent of North America.” There is archaeological attestation of a short-lived Viking settlement at
L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. 


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