I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian.
[...] Imagine—here let me now address non-Indian readers—somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself than your own ancestors?
—From 1491, by Charles C. Mann
My current reading project is to get to all those nonfiction books which I've have been meaning to read for years. The last two I read, 1491 and Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty have a common theme: the impact of disease on world events. One of the major points of 1491 is that our understanding of Native American civilization is skewed by the fact that as many as 95% of them died as a result of Old World disease. One of the major points of The End of Poverty is that many of the places in the world with endemic extreme poverty are in that position mainly as a result of diseases such as malaria and aids.
And it seems so foreign to me. I've never lost a single friend or acquaintance to a communicable disease. Cancer, heart disease, old age, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver: these are the killers I know, not malaria or smallpox.