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[Comments] (5) 1491: This book blew me away! (See also author Charles Mann's responses to J. Bradford Delong's students.) It does what Guns, Germs, and Steel didn't do, which was to integrate the inhabitants of the Americas into history, showing them as people who did things rather than as people who had things happen to them. I thought it focused too much on South America, but that's where all the stuff is.

Here's the main thing I don't understand. There are dueling explanations for what killed the mega beasts. My favored explanation has always been overkill, on the general rule that mega beasts never survive long when humans come on the scene. 1491 brings up some arguments against overkill being the sole mega beast killer, such as the fact that many non-mega beasts went extinct at around the same time. My non-expert opinion is that this is pretty weak sauce because humans are really good at killing things, and even if you only kill the mega beasts there's going to be ripple effects in the whole ecosystem. In fact, one of the mind-blowing parts of 1491 is how much of the ecological picture we have of the Americas it explains as coming from the sudden near-dieout of the primary predator (humans) through disease. Though the results there were overpopulation of other species, not extinction.

But whatever. I'm not wedded to any particular explanation or explanation combo for mega beast extinction. I'm also not wedded to whether the Clovis sites represent the earliest American cultures, or whether there are lots of pre-Clovis sites. 1491 argues for pre-Clovis sites, and GG&S argues against. But here's the thing. If there are pre-Clovis sites then you've got humans hanging out with megafauna for thousands of years before the mass extinctions. That hurts the overkill theory, but it also hurts the whole theory of human development as popularized by Diamond and Mann. Why didn't someone domesticate the horses or camels or megallamas, with all that implies?

PS: In other book news, Ventus, which I mentioned a few entries ago, is available as a free ebook. Take the curtain!

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Posted by Tim May at Tue Sep 18 2007 10:10

Well, it hurts Diamond*, but I don't really see Mann as part of the same theory of human development as Diamond. I mean, a good part of GG&S is explaining why the Americas were so much less advanced technologically than Eurasia, & 1491 is arguing that they weren't, necessarily, that it's not so straightforward to compare technological levels like that.

Thanks for the Ventus link, incidentally, I've been meaning to read something of Schroeder for a while.

* Though I imagine he could say something along the lines of "Turns out none of those animals were domesticable".

Posted by Leonard at Tue Sep 18 2007 10:37

But domesticated animals also -> communicable diseases, and a big part of Mann's presentation is that that didn't happen. And the "Indians" did domesticate what animals they could (regular-sized llamas), so it's hard for me to believe that they had the chance to domesticate horses and passed it up/it didn't work.

Of course now that I think about it, the idea that horses are useful relies on there being Great Plains, which there might not have been originally. Horses weren't useful in South America.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Sep 18 2007 10:41

And that, in turn, relies on my Europe-derived assumption that horses are labor animals. They could just as easily be meat.

Posted by Tim May at Tue Sep 18 2007 18:15

Yeah, it didn't happen, but I think Diamond is committed to saying it _should_ have happened (because his argument basically assumes it'll happen whenever possible*). Mann doesn't address the general issue of why the Americans didn't have many domesticated species except in passing, so I don't think it really affects any of his points.

I can think of three explanations why pre-Clovis peoples, if they existed, didn't leave behind any domesticated megafauna to later precolumbian cultures. 1) Chance. My feeling is that Diamond tends to underestimate the extent to which societal developments are contingent on basically unpredictable factors. 2) American horses really were less suitable than Eurasian ones, or less advantageous in American conditions. 3) They did, or started to, but whatever caused the extinction got the (semi)domesticated animals too. Presumably this wouldn't eliminate the Eurasian "advantage" in disease, thought it might mitigate it somewhat.

* I haven't actually read this part of GG&S - I had to take it back to the library when I was only about ΒΌ finished.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Sep 18 2007 18:31

Here's a crackpot idea based on absolutely no evidence: they domesticated the animals and developed communicable diseases--which killed the _animals_.

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