Unlike most readers who seem to gravitate towards popular fiction or how-to books, I'm addicted to non-fiction, history and biographies. That's because I invariably learn new and fascinating tidbits that make me a better business executive, if not person.
Take "1491", for example. Written by Charles C. Mann, and subtitled, 'New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus', the book is a veritable treasure trove of fascinating findings that turned my world view upside down.
To wit, did you know the reason why the early Portuguese, Spanish, French and English explorers of the so-called New World easily overran native populations? It had nothing to do with their advanced weaponry, use of horses or the smallpox they carried with them. Instead, says Mann, new findings prove that North and South American Native Indians populations were nearly exterminated by a Western Hemisphere version of the Black Plague just a few years before Columbus, Cortez, Pizarro, John Smith and their ilk landed. So, the few remaining Indians had little resolve or willpower to fight back. And, with so few natives milling around, the European mistakenly thought they were entering a near-virgin paradise.
Nothing, says, Mann, could be further from the truth. Before the epic plague wiped out tens of millions of early Americans, the Western Hemisphere's population dwarfed that of the Old World. Not only that, cities such as the Mayan and Incan capitals were ten times larger than London and Paris at that time.
And, the Native Indians were more advanced than the Europeans in many, many ways. They not only developed maize, "…the world's most important crop,” but also tomatoes, peppers and many of the beans found on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Native Americans developed 60 percent of today's crops. They also invented their own writing, astronomy and are credited with creating the zero.
The Mayan and Incan populations were not only more sophisticated than their Egyptian and Greek counterparts but, and this is the big breakthrough news, they predated them. Recent findings have confirmed the incorrectly-named New World had established sophisticated cultures thousands of years before the four traditional well-springs of human civilizations had even formed (those being: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in modern Iraq, the Nile Delta, the Indus Valley in Pakistan and the Yellow River in east central China).
"1491" left me thinking about the greatest 'what if' of all time. What if the Native Americans hadn't been decimated by plague and, instead, easily turned back that first wave of European explorers? What if a Native American superpower had emerged in the Western Hemisphere? There might not have been any world wars, any rise of Hitler, any Cold War, any radical fundamentalism or, dare I suggest it, no Democrats or Republicans to fight over who's responsible for destroying the world's last, best hope.
Ah, but the plague DID waylay the Native Americans, the Portuguese, Spanish, French and British had their way, the Colonists tossed them out and we're now stuck with the miasma that is life in the USA in 2012.
Still, how cool is it to know that this hemisphere was running rings around its counterpart in what's always been known as the Old World? In point of fact, Columbus was an arriviste.
And a tip o' RepMan's cap to Chris "RepMan, Jr." Cody for suggesting this post.