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Sunday, October 11, 2009

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Review
. . . a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin. (Boston Globe )

If you haven't read [it] because the book form seems too weighty, don't miss the audio edition. . . . [It] is even more gripping as an audio listen, allowing listeners to absorb more of the many facts than printed word seems to readily offer. (Midwest Book Review ) --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

Review
“Engagingly written and utterly absorbing... part detective story, part epic and part tragedy.”–The Miami Herald

“Provocative... a Jared Diamond-like volley that challenges prevailing thinking about global development. Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one out young children could end up studying in their text books when they reach junior high.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Marvelous... a revelation... our concept of pure wilderness untouched by grubby human hands must now be jettisoned.”–The New York Sun

“Monumental....Mann slips in so many fresh, new interpretations of American history that it all adds up to a deeply subversive work.”–Salon

“Concise and brilliantly entertaining... reminiscent of John McPhee's eloquence with scientific detail.”– The Los Angeles Times

Product Description
In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. From the astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitl├ín, which had running water, immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city, to the Mexican corn that was so carefully created in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

About the Author
Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly, and has co-written four previous books including Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species and The Second Creation. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has won awards from the American Bar Association, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. His writing was twice selected for both The Best American Science Writing and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He lives with his wife and their children in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Why Billington Survived

THE FRIENDLY INDIAN

On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of what is now southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.

Massasoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated—indeed, the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites. It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them.

Desperate threats require desperate countermeasures. In a gamble, Massasoit intended to abandon, even reverse, a long-standing policy. Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers’ used socks—almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper’s peculiarities.

Over time, the Wampanoag, like other native societies in coastal New England, had learned how to manage the European presence. They encouraged the exchange of goods, but would only allow their visitors to stay ashore for brief, carefully controlled excursions. Those who overstayed their welcome were forcefully reminded of the limited duration of Indian hospitality. At the same time, the Wampanoag fended off Indians from the interior, preventing them from trading directly with the foreigners. In this way the shoreline groups put themselves in the position of classic middlemen, overseeing both European access to Indian products and Indian access to European products. Now Massasoit was visiting a group of British with the intent of changing the rules. He would permit the newcomers to stay for an unlimited time—provided that they formally allied with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.

Tisquantum, the interpreter, had shown up alone at Massasoit’s home a year and a half before. He spoke fluent English, because he had lived for several years in Britain. But Massasoit didn’t trust him. He seems to have been in Massasoit’s eyes a man without anchor, out for himself. In a conflict, Tisquantum might even side with the foreigners. Massasoit had kept Tisquantum in a kind of captivity since his arrival, monitoring his actions closely. And he refused to use him to negotiate with the colonists until he had another, independent means of communication with them.

That March Samoset—the third member of the triumvirate—appeared, having hitched a ride from his home in Maine on an English ship that was plying the coast. Not known is whether his arrival was due to chance or if Massasoit had asked him to come down because he had picked up a few English phrases by trading with the British. In any case, Massasoit first had sent Samoset, rather than Tisquantum, to the foreigners.

Samoset had walked unaccompanied and unarmed into the circle of rude huts in which the British were living on March 17, 1621. The colonists saw a robust, erect-postured man wearing only a loincloth; his straight black hair was shaved in front but flowed down his shoulders behind. To their further amazement, this almost naked man greeted them in broken but understandable English. He left the next morning with a few presents. A day later he came back, accompanied by five “tall proper men”—the phrase is the colonist Edward Winslow’s—with three-inch black stripes painted down the middle of their faces. The two sides talked inconclusively, each warily checking out the other, for a few hours. Five days later, on the 22nd, Samoset showed up again at the foreigners’ ramshackle base, this time with Tisquantum. Meanwhile Massasoit and the rest of the Indian company waited out of sight.

Samoset and Tisquantum spoke with the colonists for about an hour. Perhaps they then gave a signal. Or perhaps Massasoit was simply following a schedule. In any case, he and the rest of the Indian party appeared without warning at the crest of a hill on the south bank of the creek that ran through Patuxet. Alarmed by Massasoit’s sudden entrance, the settlers withdrew to the hill on the opposite bank, where they had emplaced their few cannons behind a half-finished stockade. A standoff ensued.

Finally Winslow exhibited the decisiveness that later led to his selection as colony governor. Wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a sword, he waded through the stream and offered himself as a hostage. Tisquantum, who walked with him, served as interpreter. Massasoit’s brother took charge of Winslow and then Massasoit crossed the water himself followed by Tisquantum and twenty of Massasoit’s men, all ostentatiously unarmed. The colonists took the sachem to an unfinished house and gave him some cushions to recline on. Both sides shared some of the foreigners’ homemade moonshine, then settled down to talk, Tisquantum translating.

To the colonists, Massasoit could be distinguished from his subjects more by manner than by dress or ornament. He wore the same deerskin shawls and leggings and like his fellows had covered his face with bug-repelling oil and reddish-purple dye. Around his neck hung a pouch of tobacco, a long knife, and a thick chain of the prized white shell beads called wampum. In appearance, Winslow wrote afterward, he was “a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.” The Europeans, who had barely survived the previous winter, were in much worse shape. Half of the original colony now lay underground beneath wooden markers painted with death’s heads; most of the survivors were malnourished.

Their meeting was a critical moment in American history. The foreigners called their colony Plymouth; they themselves were the famous Pilgrims.* As schoolchildren learn, at that meeting the Pilgrims obtained the services of Tisquantum, usually known as “Squanto.” In the 1970s, when I attended high school, a popular history text was America: Its People and Values, by Leonard C. Wood, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Edward L. Biller. Nestled among colorful illustrations of colonial life was a succinct explanation of Tisquantum’s role:

A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Captain Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.

My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Tisquantum had demonstrated the proper maize-planting technique—sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds, a traditional native technique for producing a bountiful harvest. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving. In our slipshod fashion, we students took notes.

The story in America: Its People and Values isn’t wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.

Tisquantum was critical to the colony’s survival, contemporary scholars agree. He moved to Plymouth after the meeting and spent the rest of his life there. Just as my teacher said, Tisquantum told the colonists to bury several small fish in each maize hill, a procedure followed by European settlers for the next two centuries. Squanto’s teachings, Winslow concluded, led to “a good increase of Indian corn”—the difference between success and starvation.

Winslow didn’t know that fish fertilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention—if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before. To return to the Americas, he in effect had to escape twice—once from Spain, where his captors initially sold him into slavery, and once from England, to which he was smuggled from Spain, and where he served as a kind of living conversation piece at a rich man’s house. In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Skipping over the complex course of Tisquantum’s life i...

From AudioFile
Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492 to find . . . people concerned with personal cleanliness in an age when Europeans rarely bathed, houses warmer than the ones they had left behind in Europe, and a prosperous Incan society without money. These are just a few of the facts Peter Johnson relates as he reads Charles C. Mann's study of pre-Columbus America. Johnson reads mainly to convey information, clearly but in a lecturer's voice. At times, he can be too dry, losing the natural humor that Mann includes. However, Mann's narrative is interesting enough to keep listeners' attention throughout. J.A.S. ©AudioFile, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.