1491: a Book Review

29 Apr

Dear ayllu,

Back in foggy Scotland, university has kicked in again hard, and I have never done this before – but I recently received a beautiful set of questions that prompted me to consider anew the things I could use this blog for. The questions I received followed this theme:

What’s writing time like for you?

Do you have a setting, a sound, a feeling you try to create before you put fingertips upon keys?

I was also asked about my special Quiet Places (where I love to go just to relax), more about university life – and I realised I really could involve you more.

So the first way in which I plan to do this is by sharing with you a book review I wrote for my anthropology course. (I have been waiting with this until my tutor marked it. Had I received a terrible grade, I would have known that it is utter shite and I should best shut up about it. But it received a good mark, so it’s okay to pass it on!)

ancestral pride

The issues that concern me are, of course, recurrent – in my personal interests as in my writing: indigenous rights, plants, pride / socio-political movements, and history (past and present). You’ll find these in Qayqa, Munay, and wherever I can squeeze it in: all over my university essays. I am, after all, studying anthropology and Hispanic studies.

For my anthropology course, we were required to select a book dedicated to the field of anthropology / ethnography, and write a book review. I chose 1491: The Americas Before Columbus, a book that came very highly recommended to me over the Christmas break by Heather Gatley.



This is a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the newly developing histories in the Americas, as well as anything written by my friend Hugh Thomson. But I’ll let the review speak for itself.


Book Review

Mann, Charles C. 1491: The Americas Before Columbus. 465 pp., appendixes & bibliography. London: Granta Publications, 2005. £12.99 (paper)


Following the establishment of the Caral settlement as the cradle of civilisation in the Americas, archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have found themselves reassessing not only the arrival date of Native Americas to the continent, but more importantly following the question – as quoted by Duke University historian Elizabeth Fenn – “who were all these people? And what were they doing? (chap. 4) This is the question author Charles C. Mann explicitly and convincingly analyses in his book, 1491: The Americas Before Columbus, over chapters that span the various reasons why the Spanish Conquest was successful (part one, chapters 2-4); Native American inventive and agricultural sophistication (part two, chapters 5-7); farming and landscaping (part three, chapters 8-10); a humanist call for the future (part four, chapter 11).

Mann’s focus in chapter 1 on the smallpox epidemic places the theory that European perception of native population was so minute because the civilisations had already been reduced to one third of the original populace by the disease, prior to direct contact. This central argument of a greater original populace is the foundation of Mann’s book, upon which the author bases the theories of far more advanced manpower, intellect, invention, and influence on the agriculture than previously assumed.

Mann paints a sympathetic image of rhetorically intellectual Indians, emphasised by their sophistication of language: “the corpus of writings in classical Nahuatl is even larger than the corpus of texts in classical Greek.” The civilisations’ remarkable social advancement is highlighted by the isolation of Mesoamerica and the Andes from one another, as well as from the rest of the world. Anything they possess, they created themselves, such as the wheel and history’s second-ever experiment with government (both chap. 2). Other innovative theories presented by Mann are the historical defiance that all civilisations are founded on agriculture: Peru’s ancient cities drew their sustenance from the sea, with farming was as “an afterthought”. Mann demonstrates their superior agricultural knowledge: building water canals that are “an engineering feat that would be a challenge today” (chap. 2); the burning of the undergrowth to “retool ecosystems to encourage elk, deer and bear” (chap. 3); and improving the Amazon soil conditions into terra preta so it could be “capable of supporting about 200,000 to 400,000 people” (chap. 3).

In precise and detailed arguments, Mann guides his readers through the discoveries and contemporary discussions held in the broad fields of anthropology, archaeology, ecology and even palaeoparasitology, the study of ancient parasites. His praiseworthy ability to explain complexities of a scientific discipline are exemplified in his explanation of how the analysis of human leukocyte antigens (HLA) demonstrate Native American vulnerability to the smallpox virus carried by Europeans (chap. 1). Mann walks his readership through complex biological processes with a strong sensibility for the use of metaphors best suited to the layman, increasing the complexity of his language at a conscious pace. Throughout his work, the author remains apprehensive to the wider ethical consequences of contemporary discussions in these fields; for example stating: “much of the environmental movement is animated by what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ – the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land. (…) Yet if the new view is correct and the work of humankind is pervasive, where does that leave efforts to restore nature?”

Many readers will enjoy Mann’s balance of professional debates, personal anecdotes (including of his rowdy ancestors arriving on the Mayflower) and powerful imagery, such as the emphasis on the devastation of the European’s arrival: “a Lakota winter count memorialised the year 1784 with a stark image: a pox-scarred man, alone in a tipi, shooting himself.” Yet the author’s will to provide a balanced overview of all arguments occasionally backfires with the excessive load of eye-witness accounts, elaborate interviews, and compulsive details, such as his elaborate history of maize (chap. 2). Mann stands at periodic risk of drowning his readers in information. However, I argue that the author wins his readers over with his bemused and personal narrative voice – spiced with occasional frustrated undertones, or even direct quotes – “they were in the midst of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything” – that show a passionate affiliation for his subject matter.

Mann’s book shakes the foundations of everything we thought we knew about pre-contact Americas. Readers are reminded that his book is a presentation of on-going theories and debates, not facts – not yet. The broader readership may use Mann’s book as a well-informed introduction to modern debates as well as to enjoy individual anecdotes so often forgotten by history or science.

 Word count: 786  


If you want more insight into the book, I found a link that shares very good extracts from the book: http://www.d.umn.edu/~pfarrell/Latin%20America/1491.pdf

The growth of Latin American pride is very present in my studies at the moment, be it in Hispanic Studies or anthropology. I feel so passionate about this that I feel I could fill this blog up immediately, but please allow me to restrict myself to sharing a few videos with you, so that you may grasp the issues in my head; the issues we are tackling at Aberdeen University.

Firstly, Scottish director Ken Loach’s contribution to the film September ’11, which is comprised of a series of short films made by directors around the world, all of who cast the North American’s tragedy on 9/11 in a global light.



Skip ahead a bit, if you like, to the main video. It takes a short time to start. I highly recommend September ’11, if you ever have the chance to see it. It is a very good global answer to what happened in the United States – and the “global” aspect is what is most important, I think.

Here, a documentary we are currently watching in Hispanic studies about the Zapatista “Indigenous Revolution” in Chiapas. We haven’t finished watching it, so you can get ahead of us if you like! I know it’s long but so far, it is very very good. Let’s curl up in bed with socks and tea and educate ourselves.


Lastly, one of the MOST POETIC songs I have ever heard about the beauty of Latin American pride, by the Puerto Rican band Calle 13, with English subtitles.


The university teaching year is almost done and exams are coming up. My blog goes kinda quiet when university kicks in, plus now we’re all looking for places to live next year, so forgive me if I am somewhat silent. If you get bored, check out my TUMBLR where more stuff (but smaller stuff) happens. I will try to post as much as I can, about university, about our new TRAPEZE, about our first ACROBATICS CONVENTION this upcoming weekend… Post videos & photos. And of course, tell you that I spent most of my Easter break re-reading Munay to become reacquainted with her, that Mark is working on the cover for Qayqa at the moment, and let you know how the publishing will take place come Summer 2014. I am SO F***** EXCITED about Qayqa coming out, and I intend to spend a lot of my summer writing Munay. She is so beautiful.

Love, Ritti


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