I don’t remember where I saw the reference to this book, but I think it may have been Business Week. I thought it looked interesting, and have recommitted to the idea that my daily commute should be more useful than just 60 minutes of rock radio, so I grabbed the book on tape and listened to it.
The author, Charles Mann writes in an easy, accessible style and as far as I can tell try very hard to tell both sides of every story. In the book we learn that there is some question as to how many people lived in the New World before Columbus “Discovered” it and he spent a lot of time quoting leaders from all points of view. In the end he makes it pretty clear that he is in the camp of those who think there were lots and lots and lots of people here when Columbus landed and makes a strong enough case that I too am convinced. The image we have of a lightly populated country prior to 1492 is just wrong.
In addition to the bigger questions like that the books also delves into the personal. We learn the back story to “Squanto” — enough to know that he was a much more tragic figure than what you were taught in school. We also hear about Haiawatha, founder with Deganawida of the Iroquois confederacy lead by the “Grand Council.” The council still meets today and is only eclipsed in age by the Icelandic “Althing.” The founding story is covered and really resonated with me.
We spend time talking about other pre-columbus cultures and learn many things that we aren’t taught in school. Did you know why the Incans had stairs in their highways? Did you know what a few escaped pigs could do in a new world, and why? Did you know that there are reports of villages along the Amazon River that spanned a hundred miles of shore line? That, and many other ideas are considered.
As I finished the book I found myself full of admiration for the people and cultures that were forever lost when Columbus arrived. I would love to be able to take a ride in a time machine and meet the people who were here, but short of that this book is the next best thing.
I’m now working on 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, I’ll let you know if I enjoy that one as much as I did this one.