After watching John Leguizamo’s Netflix special Latin History for Morons, I felt a duty to learn more about the Hemisphere in which I live. I started with Mr. Leguizamo’s strongest recommendation: 1491, a 560-page tome with multiple appendices. The author isn’t a historian or archaeologist but a journalist who synthesizes all manner of information and makes it accessible.
The result is so compelling, so dense and riddled with shocks big and small that I suspended my usual speed-reading. Unexamined assumptions that I wasn’t even aware of holding were upended right and left. The first book to leave me similarly dumbfounded is Lies My Teachers Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The difference is that 1491 covers two continents and more than 10,000 years.
By Mann’s reckoning, the modern study of the indigenous Americas went wrong with “Holmberg’s mistake.” A brave and compassionate graduate student—later Professor Holmberg, head of Anthropology at Cornell—encountered the Sirianó people of Bolivia. Their miserable conditions and apparent lack of higher culture (such as religion) made them an attractive object of study, and of pity—Holmberg sought to remedy poverty in the Andes for the rest of his life. After years of careful observation, he determined that the Sirianó way of life was traditional, going back millennia. Holmberg stated as much in a hugely influential book, Nomads of the Longbow (1950), framing the narrative for generations. However:
Just as Holmberg believed, the Sirianó were among the most culturally impoverished people on earth. But this was not because they were unchanged holdovers from humankind’s ancient past but because smallpox and influenza laid waste to their villages in the 1920s. … At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.
It gets better and worse from there. For example:
It turns out the Inka did have a writing system. Generations of archaeologists and historians missed it because they weren’t expecting three-dimensional binary code.
The city of Tenochitlan (Triple Alliance, aka Aztec) was bigger than Paris, with beautiful botanical gardens and spotlessly clean streets. The supposedly superior conquistadors came from a place where streets were full of shit were a fact of life.
Revised estimates of the population of the New World now consider the devastating impact of epidemics from Europe, which could have a kill rate as high as 95% among American Indians. Consider: pigs alone, which occasionally escaped from Spanish conquistadors, carried anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis—and had the ability to reproduce and spread those diseases everywhere.
1491 is required reading. Afterwards, look up Survival International, the only independent group working to protect the land and rights of indigenous people. Because, five centuries later, governments and commerce still see them as primitive and disposable.