by Charles C. Mann is perhaps the most interesting.
Mann is a journalist, but he is far more erudite than most and he writes orders of magnitude better than any academic. This means that he is able to handle mountains of scientific studies and hours of interviews to present a fascinating and surprising picture of what the New World was like before the 15th century wave of European exploration.
First of all, he says, it wasn't a New World at all. People had been in North and South America for up to 30,000 years or more, and in a few places had invented cities at the same time or even before people in the Near East had settled down in permanent villages. Nor were there only a few of them: estimates now are that 40 million people lived on the two continents. Certainly the very first Europeans commented again and again on how populated the country was, even the Amazon basin.
What happened shortly afterwards was nearly complete decimation of the population through disease. Mann says that calculations of a 90 per cent die-off of the many and varied native groups are not far-fetched.
This was great tragedy for the people involved, but also for the entire world, he writes.
"Having grown speately for millennia the Ameicas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams stories, philosophies, relgions, moralities, discoveries and all the other produc5w of the mind. Few thing aremore sublime or characrerically human that the cross fertlizatoon of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectural ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies has survived in full splendor?
"Here and there we see clues to what might have been. Pacific Northwest Indian artists carved beautiful masks, boxes, bas reliefs and totem powles within the dictates of an elaborat aesthetic system based on an ovoid shape that has no name in European langauges. Britsh ships in the nineteenth century radically transformed native art by giving he Indians brightly coloured paints that unlike native pgiments didn't wash off in the rain. Indians incorporated the new peigments into their traditionns, expanding them and in the process creating an aestic nouvelle vague. European surrealists came acoss the new art in the first years of the twentieth century. As artist swill, they stole everthing could, transfiguring the images further. Their interest helped a new generation of indigenous artist to explore new themes.
"Now envision this kind of a fertile back and forth happening in a hundred ways with a hundred cultures--the gifts from four centuries of intellectual exchange. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished...."
Mann has written a second, somewhat less successful book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created . He also is a little constrained in both books by his seeming lack of knowledge of French and Portuguese--most of his examples are drawn from English and Spanish sources or experts. But this is a book that should be read by anyone trying to tease apart where we are now. His sections on agriculture in Amazonia and the Peruvian deserts are particularly relevant since they show glimpses of how human intervention can lead to a long term, sustainable relation to nature.
The photo, by the way, is of the Madre de Dios river in Peru, a tributary of the Amazon. Much has changed along it, as I found when I was in South America last year. This book, which I had read before but have just returned to, has been an eye-opener for me as I try to make sense of what I saw.