I picked it up because there’s been a hubbub about the sequel, 1492. The gist of the original is that native american societies before Columbus were a lot older, denser and more advanced/complex than was believed even a few decades ago. I’m not sure how much of Mann’s view is representative of the academic consensus and how much is just a contrarian narrative he wants to push, but there’s still lots to learn. I’m only halfway through and can’t give an overall evaluation, but some notes will be below the fold.
One bit I noticed early on is his disagreement with the theory that Mayan civilization collapsed due to drought. I immediately assumed that he was referring to (without naming) Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”. Then I found that both books were published in the same year, so maybe not. I’ll quote the relevant paragraph from 1491:
“Such scenarios resonate with contemporary ecological fears, helping to make them popular outside the academy. Within the academy skepticism is more common. The archaeological record shows that southern Yucatan was abandoned, while Maya cities in the northern part of the peninsular soldiered on or even grew. Peculiarly, the abandoned land was the wettest – with its rivers, lakes, and rainforest, it should have been the best place to wait out a drought. Conversely, northern Yucatan was dry and rocky. The question is why people would have fled from drought to lands that would have been even more badly affected.”
To continue the comparison, Diamond’s most famous book is “Guns, Germs & Steel”, an attempt to explain why eurasian contact with the New World (along with other places) turned out as it did. Mann more explicitly argues against at least two of those factors. The guns of New England’s settlers are portrayed as being inferior to native arrows. European garb (including the conquistador’s armor) is discarded for native attire. When Squanto’s chief plots (Massasoit) an alliance with the Pilgrims against an enemy tribe, Mann argues that this was about access to trade goods rather than military power. This despite what colonists actually wrote down about Squanto’s the case Squanto made for such an alliance and without any statement to the contrary. It’s hard to square this argument that the natives were not at a technological disadvantage with the account of Cortez’ conquest of the Aztecs (we’re supposed to call them the Tripartite alliance, and Squanto is Tisquantum, but whatever). It’s true that disease wound up devastating the Aztec, including Montezuma, but the much larger forces whom Cortez repeatedly fought off on his way to Tenochtitlan are not described as yet being afflicted with anything. The natives had never seen horses before, so his cavalry is given a lot of credit, but the cannons are also described as pulverizing masses of the enemy. Nor was Cortez unique. It’s actually Pizarro’s conquest of the larger Inca empire without taking a single casualty which stands out as requiring a very large dose of luck.
Finally, Mann seems to agree with William McNeill that syphilis was not an import from the New World, or at least is doubtful of a theory whose own creator admits he was motivated to find “balance” in the exchange of disease.
For someone else’s opinion on whether the New World was technologically behind Europe, see Greg Cochran.