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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before…

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (edition 2005)

by Charles C. Mann

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4,5531261,051 (4.16)1 / 247
Title:1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Authors:Charles C. Mann
Info:Knopf (2005), Hardcover
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:history, nonfiction, LR, own, TBR

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C.Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

"Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city.; Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that has been called man's first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating heir world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this is a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew."
~~back cover

This is an absolutely astonishing work of academic prowess, written in language available to the average reader. It's not a quick read, but a very intriguing and in depth exploration and reassessment of the world we thought we knew existed in the Western hemisphere pre-contact. California and the Pacific Northwest were such rich environments that many of the societies have been considered to be on the verge of becoming states rather than tribes. Imagine what might have been if America, Mexico and South America had not been decimated by exotic disease but had been given the opportunity to continue their development!

The book doesn't explore the effect of European contact on the inhabitants and societies of Canada or Alaska, leaving me to wonder whether they were impacted as drastically as their southern cousins. And did the further exploration of Africa and the Orient have the same effect on the native populations and cultures?

Obviously, having majored in Archaeology, this book was a "keeper" for me. But if you are at all interested in the subject, I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- it will keep you engrossed and astonished, and leave you with a completely new perspective of the consequences of cultural expansion and conquest.

View all my reviews
1 vote Aspenhugger | Feb 6, 2017 |
Engaging synthesis of recent developments in archeological and anthropological knowledge about the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann argues persuasively that American civilizations were much larger, more densely populated, and far more sophisticated than we have historically given them credit for. Also, his review of how Indians all over the hemisphere shaped their natural environments has interesting implications for contemporary efforts in conservation and environmentalism. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
A very good book. Written in a style that draws you along, despite the information volume. Does a good job of separating generally accepted theory from more exotic guesses and identifying them as such. The death tolls, both in humanity and culture/society are simply staggering. ( )
1 vote Whiskey3pa | Sep 22, 2016 |
This book attempts to reconstruct what the world of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere was like before contact with the Europeans. Often what the first conquerors and colonists saw was not representative of the pre-Columbian reality as the diseases that preceded them decimated the Indians leading to political instability, and often a faction allying with the Europeans and hastening the demise of the culture in it's entirety. Mann focuses on three main points, presenting evidence for and against these hypotheses:

  • the population of the New World was much greater than generally accounted for, possibly more populous than Europe

  • people arrived in the Americas much earlier than the popular Bering land bridge theory would suppose

  • the Indians left an indelible mark on the landscape, building cities, managing ecoystems, and even creating the Amazon jungle

In many ways this book raises more questions than it answers, but dang are they good questions. Ultimately, the full story of the pre-contact Americas may never be known, but the assumptions of what it was like have been tested and failed to hold up.

Favorite Passages:
What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works. ( )
1 vote Othemts | Jul 20, 2016 |

I got interested in this book from an extract, What really happened on Thanksgiving, which told the story of the Pilgrim Fathers from the Indians' point of view: these incompetent Europeans arrived in a fertile area recently depopulated by plague, and eventually were co-opted by the locals into existing power struggles. It's a really solid book, based on extensive research and reporting scholarly disputes and the evolution of interpretations of the evidence, combined with anecdata of Mann's own encounters with both researchers and the descendants of the researched. (Incidentally, he reports that the latter generally identify with and use the term "Indians" to refer to themselves, so he follows their lead.)

I took three main points away from the book. First, that the series of plagues inflicted on the peoples of the Americas by Europeans was one of the most catastrophic events in human history. The lowest estimate of population decrease due to disease in what is now Latin America (home to two large and well-developed polities) in the 16th century is a whopping 90%. Disease spread much faster than Europeans, who often arrived (like the Pilgrims) into territory where the indigenous human activity had simply died off. It's difficult to grasp the scale of the catastrophe.

Second, immense amounts of important human culture have therefore simply been lost. I was aware of the fact that only four Mayan manuscripts survive. I wasn't aware that there are also eight from the Ñudzahui (Mixtec) culture, including the brilliant story of 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, which is surely ready for dramatization. I had certainly never heard of the Cahokia Mounds, in southern Illinois just across the Mississippi from St Louis, Missouri, which sound utterly fantastic. So little is known; so much has been destroyed.

Third, Mann makes the daring suggestion that American concepts of liberty and freedom actually owe much more to the influence of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (aka the Iroquois) than is generally relised. He quotes John Adams reminiscing about his relationship with local Indian chiefs in mid-18th-century Massachusetts, and points out that the ideals of personal freedom from oppression were practiced much more by Indians than by Europeans. He goes a step further, and wonders if it's coincidence that slavery was generally practiced by Indians south of what became the Mason-Dixon line, but not by those to its north. I'm not sure about the latter point, but the rest of it is a very attractive concept.

Anyway, a book that thoroughly illuminated my own ignorance. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Jun 18, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 121 (next | show all)
Mann has written an impressive and highly readable book. Even though one can disagree with some of his inferences from the data, he does give both sides of the most important arguments. 1491 is a fitting tribute to those Indians, present and past, whose cause he is championing.
Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one our young children could end up studying in their textbooks when they reach junior high.

Mann does not present his thesis as an argument for unrestrained development. It is an argument, though, for human management of natural lands and against what he calls the "ecological nihilism" of insisting that forests be wholly untouched.
Mann's style is journalistic, employing the vivid (and sometimes mixed) metaphors of popular science writing: "Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift. . . . its coastline hits the ocean floor and crumples up like a carpet shoved into a chairleg." Similarly, the book is not a comprehensive history, but a series of reporter's tales: He describes personal encounters with scientists in their labs, archaeologists at their digs, historians in their studies and Indian activists in their frustrations. Readers vicariously share Mann's exposure to fire ants and the tension as his guide's plane runs low on fuel over Mayan ruins. These episodes introduce readers to the debates between older and newer scholars. Initially fresh, the journalistic approach eventually falters as his disorganized narrative rambles forward and backward through the centuries and across vast continents and back again, producing repetition and contradiction. The resulting blur unwittingly conveys a new sort of the old timelessness that Mann so wisely wishes to defeat.
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The seeds of this book date back, at least in part, to 1983, when I wrote an article for 'Science' about a NASA program that was monitoring atmospheric ozone levels.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 140004006X, Hardcover)

1491 is not so much the story of a year, as of what that year stands for: the long-debated (and often-dismissed) question of what human civilization in the Americas was like before the Europeans crashed the party. The history books most Americans were (and still are) raised on describe the continents before Columbus as a vast, underused territory, sparsely populated by primitives whose cultures would inevitably bow before the advanced technologies of the Europeans. For decades, though, among the archaeologists, anthropologists, paleolinguists, and others whose discoveries Charles C. Mann brings together in 1491, different stories have been emerging. Among the revelations: the first Americans may not have come over the Bering land bridge around 12,000 B.C. but by boat along the Pacific coast 10 or even 20 thousand years earlier; the Americas were a far more urban, more populated, and more technologically advanced region than generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the continents, to the point that even "timeless" natural features like the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention.

Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist stories are among the best-founded: the stories of early American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly, encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained for centuries before. --Tom Nissley

A 1491 Timeline

Europe and Asia

Dates The Americas

25000-35000 B.C. Time of paleo-Indian migration to Americas from Siberia, according to genetic evidence. Groups likely traveled across the Pacific in boats.

Wheat and barley grown from wild ancestors in Sumer.


5000 In what many scientists regard as humankind's first and greatest feat of genetic engineering, Indians in southern Mexico systematically breed maize (corn) from dissimilar ancestor species.

First cities established in Sumer.


3000 The Americas' first urban complex, in coastal Peru, of at least 30 closely packed cities, each centered around large pyramid-like structures

Great Pyramid at Giza


32 First clear evidence of Olmec use of zero--an invention, widely described as the most important mathematical discovery ever made, which did not occur in Eurasia until about 600 A.D., in India (zero was not introduced to Europe until the 1200s and not widely used until the 1700s)

800-840 A.D. Sudden collapse of most central Maya cities in the face of severe drought and lengthy war

Vikings briefly establish first European settlements in North America.

1000 Reconstruction of Cahokia, c. 1250 A.D.* Abrupt rise of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, the largest city north of the Rio Grande. Population estimates vary from at least 15,000 to 100,000.

Black Death devastates Europe.


1398 Birth of Tlacaélel, the brilliant Mexican strategist behind the Triple Alliance (also known as the Aztec empire), which within decades controls central Mexico, then the most densely settled place on Earth.

The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.

1492 The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.

Syphilis apparently brought to Europe by Columbus's returning crew.


Ferdinand Magellan departs from Spain on around-the-world voyage.

1519 Sixteenth-century Mexica drawing of the effects of smallpox** Cortes driven from Tenochtitlán, capital of the Triple Alliance, and then gains victory as smallpox, a European disease never before seen in the Americas, kills at least one of three in the empire.

1525-1533 The smallpox epidemic sweeps into Peru, killing as much as half the population of the Inka empire and opening the door to conquest by Spanish forces led by Pizarro.

1617 Huge areas of New England nearly depopulated by epidemic brought by shipwrecked French sailors.

English Pilgrims arrive at Patuxet, an Indian village emptied by disease, and survive on stored Indian food, renaming the village Plymouth.

1620 *Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, Ill., painting by Michael Hampshire. **Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, N.M. (Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 1547-77).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:59 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Mann shows how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques have come to previously unheard-of conclusions about the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans: In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe. Certain cities--such as Tenochtitlâan, the Aztec capital--were greater in population than any European city. Tenochtitlâan, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets. The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids. Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" by human beings. Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process that the journal Science recently described as "man's first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering."--From publisher description.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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