Monday, September 14, 2009


So, Lester Embree lent me his copy of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Lester urged me to read it, but I rarely read books that people recommend to me because I don't have the time. I'm so far behind on the reading I need to do for my own work that reading for pleasure is a rare treat. I don't know how many months Lester's book sat on my shelf before I dipped in, but once I did I was caught. The book starts with a description of a visit to the extraordinary mound sites in the Amazonian lowlands. This grabbed me not only because it's inherently interesting, but also because he was talking about people I know and about topics on which I do research, such as terra preta soils.

I was strongly tempted to read it straight through. It's a real page-turner. Instead, I chose to read it slowly to savor it.

I think this is the best book on archaeology that I've ever read, not only because it's beautifully written and entertaining, or because it masterfully summarizes a couple of decades of cutting edge research. It's not just a popularization of research. The book makes a fundamentally important intellectual point: that the American Indians were the moral, intellectual, and social equals of the Europeans. It makes this point more successfully than any other work I've ever read. It explains the European Conquest of the New World largely in terms of disease, not technological or military superiority

Why wasn't this book written by an archaeologist? I can think of a couple of reasons.
1) First there's the problem of "popular" writing by scholars. Many non-academics understand that popular writing by scholars is discouraged by the scorn of colleagues. Although not everyone cares what their colleagues think, there is nevertheless some truth underlying this belief. Certainly some scholars, particularly younger ones, will be discouraged by the disapprobation of their peers. But that's not the key issue. Scholars receive tenure, promotions, and professional advancement, including in many cases merit raises or plum job assignments, based on their scholarly productivity. A book like 1491, which was published by a trade book publisher and therefore was presumably not peer-reviewed, simply doesn't count toward professional advancement. Few of us have the leisure to work on major projects, like wide-ranging books, that don't contribute to advancing our careers.

2) Second, we're too specialized. Archaeologists specialize both topically and geographically. It would never have occurred to me to try to write a book on the archaeology of the whole western hemisphere. Archaeologists occasionally attempt a major comparative work on some wide ranging topic such as the rise of civilization, the origins of agriculture, or something similar, but these are rare, and they are rarely popular in tone. 1491 not only covers a vast geographic area but also discusses numerous disparate topics, from soils to demography to genetics. Certainly your average scholar would not believe him or herself competent with such a diversity of disciplines.

So, read 1491.