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Charles C. Mann’s 1493: The “Columbian Exchange”, The Homogenocene, And White Guilt
Once or twice per year, my local Costco puts out for sale a big stack of paperback copies of Charles C. Mann’s 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a detailed combination of history, travelogue, and popular science that has become one of more respected and popular nonfiction books of the last decade. I find it heartening that somebody can still make decent money writing an ambitious, serious, and well-researched book. Now Mann has published a new bestseller sequel about the historical roots of globalization: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created .
In 1491, Mann argued that the population in the Americas was probably greater than in Europe before Columbus arrived—accidentally bearing diseases for which New World natives had evolved no defenses. This argument appealed to the sizable and overlapping markets for White Guilt, Environmentalism, and New Age ancient wisdom.
Still, Mann also emphasized that Amerindians weren’t exactly noble savages leaving nature untouched. Instead, they actively manipulated nature for their own benefit, often by setting vast fires to clear out unwanted forests and brush.
I wasn’t wholly impressed by 1491’s evidence on the size of the pre-Columbian population. In a 2006 blog post, I complained—I now think unfairly—that it was “a little slippery.” An overlooked problem with the book: Mann tended to slide back and forth between talking about the Americas north or south of the Rio Grande. Most Amerindians in 1491 lived in what’s now Latin America, but my impression is that most of Mann’s readers didn’t quite grasp that.
Conquistadors like Cortez liked to emphasize the huge numbers of Indians they subdued. In contrast, English-speakers in the past tended to justify their settlement of North America on the grounds that it was not densely populated by indigenous people. In old Western movies, the heroes explain to cruel Indians that the white man will win in the end because there are more of them. Winning the West was