Thursday, July 07, 2011

Knapsack 7-14

Notes From My Knapsack 7-14-11

Jeff Gill


Might Have Beens & Could Still Imagines



When someone is excited about a book they've read and want everyone (EVERYONE!) to read it, too, they can be quite tedious.


I know, I've been that person.


So let me try a different approach.


Imagine the entire Columbus metro area, including Granville & Newark & Lancaster and all around, in the wake of a horrible bio-disaster. A new infectious agent shows up out of nowhere, and kills off 95% of the population, sparing among the few a disproportionate number of the very young, and the very old.


Horrible, but not tedious, right?


Let's carry on the thought experiment by imagining that the area is largely sealed off from further interaction with anyone else for about a generation, call it 21 years.


After that interval, come back, whether to downtown Columbus or Granville itself. What do you find?


Well, probably no OSU or Denison – remember, the mystery disease left mostly the young & old in the 5% survivors – and other civic institutions are likewise obliterated. The buildings themselves: do you think much of the utility infrastructure did well over two decades? Maybe in a few isolated pockets, but most of the power plants and transmission systems would break down and not be repaired.


Schools would exist, but in a radically revamped form, given the survival priorities of the remnant and the strange new skew of demographics. Government, ditto, with a structure probably barely recognizable from pre-outbreak days. The flag, the pledge, witness oaths in trials, but otherwise . . .


In a nutshell, this is what Charles Mann tries to help us understand in his book "1491," now out in paperback. He gives a continent spanning overview of current research on Native peoples, from South America through the Hopewell culture of the Ohio valley, and makes his case that our sense of what "Indian" life was like both at and pre-European contact is radically warped.


What he shows us is a growing understanding among historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists that there were very, very early contacts (DeSoto comes in for some deservedly rough treatment) right on the heels of Columbus & 1492, then a gap, before the first so-called "contact narratives" are written.


During that crucial twenty-or-so year period, the first few transmissions of smallpox, influenza, measles, even the "common" cold, tore through the Americas devastating populations of Native peoples. Kill rates of 90 to 95% are looking more and more likely.


More significant from the cultural studies perspective is that we think we know what the continent "looked like" or how Indian nations "worked" & "behaved." We do not, because what is first written down is almost always a description of what American Indian life looked like after the "great dying" (as some Native accounts record it), and some time after, to boot.


While I'm obviously most drawn to the attempts to put Hopewell & Mississippian cultures of the Ohio Valley & Great Lakes in context, some of the richest material is looking at the Amazon River basin, long thought to be always unoccupied by people other than the most primitive subsistence tribes.


The growing new understanding of how Amazonian cultures worked & shaped their environments before 1491 is stunning, and holds hints of how much more we have to understand about Middle Woodland peoples of our area "before the dying time."


And the paperback of "1491" is out now, because Mann is publishing his newest book, titled "1493," next month. I cannot recommend these books too highly.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and a program assistant at the Newark Earthworks Center of OSU-N; tell him about your summer reads at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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