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Before Columbus MP3 CD – Audiobook, December 6, 2016
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Before Columbus, The Americas of 1491 by Charles C Mann. This is the young readers version of his more in-depth book 1491. It's exceedingly well written and was engaging for for my 9, 7, 6, and 4 year olds and informative for me, making it an excellent family read aloud. There were literal cheers every time I asked the boys to hand me this book. I don't think it's possible to give a book a higher accolade than that.
The title is rather misleading, however. The book covers civilizations and cultures of the Americas starting way before 1491 and continuing well after the first contacts with the Europeans. For instance, the book opens with the Norte Chico civilization which consisted of a clustering of small cities, complete with pyramids, in the Peruvian desert which pre-dated the Egyptian pyramids. Moreover, scientists were always convinced that agriculture must be the basis of civilization. However, it appears that the Norte Chico civilization was based on trade between the fishermen on the coast and the cotton growers further inland.
The book then explores the Olmec society, their relation to the Mayan peoples and their role in developing genetic engineering. It appears that the Olmec people developed maize (corn) by cross-breeding a small maize crop with wild grasses. Furthermore, they farmed this maize with other crops which mutually benefitted each other and therefore did not deplete the soil. This method of farming was the basis of sustenance for many Native American peoples for centuries to come.
Next the book explores the Mayan, Incan and "Aztec" (known to themselves as the "Mexica" people or the "Triple Alliance") cultures and how each of those civilizations engineered their environments to adapt in somewhat unlikely places. Each built large and thriving cities (for example, Teotihuacan in southern Mexico housed approximately 200,000 people at its height), each engaged in trade and warfare with neighboring peoples and each maintained written records and had complex worship systems.
The book then explores the impact of the early European explorers/conquerors. It especially addresses the question of how a tiny band of Europeans were able to overcome such a huge population of Indians. The traditional answers - the Europeans' superior arms and armor and their horses - don't appear adequate to fully explain such a massacre, especially since there are documents cases in which the Indians decisively routed the Europeans.
At this point, the book takes a bit of a detour to explore how and when the earliest Native Americans came to the "new world". These chapters go into great detail, but it appears that the first migrations came much earlier than was previously though and perhaps by different routes. But the uptick is basically that because of their migration and because they did not live with domesticated livestock or pets, the earliest Americans escaped many of the diseases that plagued most of the rest of the world. Because they weren't routinely exposed to diseases, the Native Americans did not develop immunity to such diseases as the Europeans had. Furthermore, because many of them originated from a small group of ancestors, those ancestors may not have had the genetic basis to develop certain immunities even with exposure. So while the Native Americans enjoyed their "disease-free paradise" while it lasted, it was a disastrous liability to them when the Europeans brought diseases with them.
One thing that struck me was the unintenionality of the disease-spreading process. We've all heard stories about the pioneers deliberately giving smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians, and that certainly happened later on. But initially, the conquerors didn't even realize the role of diseases. They didn't even realize what was happening in between contacts with the natives. Early explorers would describe a new land teaming with villages and people, whereas another explorer only a couple decades later would describe an overgrown wilderness with only small groups of people living in primitive conditions. What the early explorers didn't realize was that the diseases they carried with them had devastated native populations by 90% or more in the interim period, and how fast those diseases had traveled.
The story of "Squanto" (real name "Tisquantum") is used as an illustration. Every schoolchild is familiar with the story of how the pilgrims met a "friendly Indian" who taught them how to grow corn and saved them by helping them survive the winter. What gets conveniently overlooked is how Tisquantum was able to communicate with them. In fact, he spoke fluent English because he'd been kidnapped by previous explorers and conquerors. He eventually earned his passage back on another exploring ship, only to find his entire village and family wiped out by disease. Helping the Pilgrims to survive was probably Tisquantum's best (albeit reluctant) choice for his how survival.
Finally, the book addresses the frequent misconception that the Americas were a "vast wilderness" by looking specifically at the Amazon River Basin. Most people, when thinking of the Amazon, think of it as a vast, uncharted, largely uninhabited/uninhabitable wild jungle. But closer examination reveals that it is actually perhaps the world's largest orchard. Typical agriculture would be virtually impossible around the Amazon Basin due to the effort of clearing such large and densely packed trees. What appears to have happened is that the early Americans may have cleared the area one tree at a time and replaced the trees with food-bearing trees. In other words, another example of how "primitive" peoples engineered their environment in advanced ways.
This book is beautifully produced with a wealth of pictures, maps and text inserts to enhance the text. Every page is a discovery that presents history in a living and exciting way. The book takes advantage of all sorts of science, anthropology, archeology, and other evidence-based fields of knowledge to flesh out the little that has been known for far too long about the earliest inhabitants of our land. Add it to your child's library (and/or your own) today.
I am looking forward reading 1491 someday