Monday, June 15, 2009
Uncle Ben's Book Blog: 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
I just finished listening to this on CD (library copy). In this book the journalist Charles C. Mann summarizes and presents the conclusions of the current crop of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, ethnologists, and epigraphers who have bee studying the pre-colonial situation in the Western hemisphere. These conclusions can be summarized as follows. First, the pre-Columbus population of the Americas was orders of magnitude larger than what we were commonly taught in public school, with the population of North and South America perhaps being as large as the current population of the United States. That population was quickly reduced dramatically by smallpox and other imported diseases for which the native populations had no natural immunities. The other conclusion is that the so-called primeval forests (to which modern ecologists want us to return) were more likely than not the result of human design and intervention, and not the "natural" state imagined by Thoreau and others.
The other primary point that Mann makes is that these conclusions are widely debated, and the debates often spring at least as much out of politicized academia, environmentalism, and liberal guilt as they do out of a reasonable interpretation of the data available to us.
As a journalist, Mann is a better writer than most academics, and I particularly liked two phrases that came out of the latter part of the book. The first is "dialogues of the deaf," which refers to the fact that often in these encounters people are talking past one another (as in so much modern political discourse). The second is "the earnestly opaque language" of academics. Anyone who reads modern academic writing in any field knows how fairly that phrase categorizes almost all academic writing today.
The other consideration for me has to do with studies of the Ancient Near East. Current scholarly estimates of the population of the ANE are fairly low, certainly as contrasted with the kinds of numbers given not only in the Bible but in other ANE sources. Those high numbers are ordinarily explained either as hyperbole on the part of the writers in order to make wars and victories seem more impressive, or as a misunderstanding of the meanings of the terms used (for example, in the Book of Numbers, it is usually argued that 'eleph (usually translated "thousand") doesn't actually mean thousand, but refers to a much smaller military unit, so that estimates of the size of the Israelite group that came out of Egypt range from 3,000-5,000 on the lower and and about 25,000 on the upper end. This book raised the question for me as to whether it was possible that the ANE population was actually fairly represented by the numbers in the Bible and other ANE sources.