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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Complicating the picture

Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" was one of my favorite books to read. (I once heard the author give an engaging and informative talk at the Sackler Museum on the Harvard campus several years ago.) Here was a work that disproved any notion that superior racial characteristics were what enabled the West to dominate the world; it was merely the good fortune of unequal starting positions. Yet in an article for the Boston Globe Ideas section, author Charles C. Mann contends that these positions may not have been so unequal, and that Diamond may have underestimated American Indians' technological ability.

Mann writes that "Germs, not guns or steel, conquered the Inca," and that "The same held true in the Northeast -- the region wasn't conquered so much as infected." For the technologies of the natives in North and South America seem to have made them a match for the invaders, save for the fact that the invaders brought lethal diseases.

Mann marshals evidence in the form of weaponry, quoting arms scholar Harold L. Peterson on longbows: "far better than the average musket of the Plymouth colonists in rapidity and accuracy of fire." Mann also describes Indians in both North and South America as excellent sailors: "In 1605 three laughing Indians in a canoe literally paddled circles around the lumbering dory paddled by traveler George Weymouth and seven other men," he writes, while "Europeans first encountered the Inca in the form of an Inca ship sailing near the equator, 300 miles from its home port, under a load of fine cotton sails. It had a crew of 20 and was easily the size of a Spanish caravel."

This is an interesting moment in scholarship. Our widely accepted view of the technological superiority of the West seems punctured. The ways in which the Europeans used their technology, along with the diseases they unknowingly brought, made far more difference than what happened on the battlefield.


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