1491 - Complications Ensue
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Friday, May 19, 2006

I'm really enjoying 1491, a compelling survey of what we now think we know about North and South America before the Europeans showed up. The news (to those of us who grew up hearing about how the Indians were mostly a scattering of bands of hunter-gatherers living in harmony with nature) is that the place was crowded with fairly sophisticated cultures. The reason Europeans forgot that is that shortly after Columbus's arrival, European travelers managed to infect Native Americans with devastating plagues that killed off up to 95% of their people -- possibly due to genetic bottlenecks from the crossing of the Bering Strait. You try keeping your sophisticated culture operating with 19 out of 20 people dead. It is full of surprising info, e.g., the Pilgrims weren't the first Northern Europeans (not counting the Vikings) to try to settle in New England; they were just the first the Indians didn't chase off.

I love a good paradigm-revising book. The book before that, I was rereading Robert T. Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies. By now everyone knows that dinosaurs were fast warm-blooded killers, but I grew up on taildraggers. Bakker's 1986 book was a revelation long before Jurassic Park. It's nice to reread the detective story: predator-prey ratios, lack of growth rings, speed calculations based on trackways, evidence of what dinosaur herbivores used to chew their food (hint: not their teeth)... Fun, and fills me with very satisfyingly useless knowledge.

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1 Comments:

I've been meaning to read this book for some time. The idea that there was a vibrant society here in North America before us Europeans infested the place is fascinating, to say the least.

Another book that might interest you is 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. I've yet to read this one as well -- some of the Amazon reviews have discouraged me.

By Blogger Shawn, at 11:17 AM  

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