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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before…

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

by Charles C. Mann

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4,9171351,341 (4.16)1 / 252
Title:1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Authors:Charles C. Mann
Info:Knopf (2005), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 480 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2005)

Recently added byLisCarey, private library, Kcecala, BigRefT, theaelizabet, historysmyth, AmyKathleen, mschlack, Brett-Woywood
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English (130)  French (2)  Finnish (1)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (135)
Showing 1-5 of 130 (next | show all)
This is an abridged edition, which I normally avoid, but it's still a substantial and fascinating history of the pre-Columbus cultures of the Americas. The story is not told in a strict chronological manner, but Mann's writing and Johnson's reading make it easy to follow and understand.

One of the biggest surprises is the population and lifestyle of the Americas when Columbus arrived. Columbus, Pizarro, other Spanish explorers, the French and English explorers that first reached the northern east coast of North America, all reported, on the first explorations, large populations living in settled communities, practicing agriculture, with highly developed arts. It wasn't just the Aztecs and the Incas; it was most of the population of Central and South America, and much of the population of North America. The impression many of us grew with, that aside from the Aztecs and Incas most Indians were relatively primitive hunter-gatherers when Europeans arrived, is simply false.
Yet on later visits, many of these population centers were empty or nearly empty. The survivors, no longer able to sustain their towns and farms, were quickly reduced to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, What happened to them? Measles. Smallpox. Influenza. All the diseases common in Europe and Asia, which those populations were accustomed to and had some resistance to, were completely new in the Americas, and swept through the population with devastating effect. And within a generation, European settlers began to doubt the original population reports, and to believe the Indians had always been primitive hunter-gatherers. What was the population of the Americas, pre-Columbus? That's a much harder question; no one was trying to do a census or create any kind of detailed records of population numbers--and by the time the Spanish were established enough that in theory they could have, the population collapse had already happened.

There are also major questions about when the ancestors of the Indians arrived. For many years the accepted theory was that the Clovis people were the first Americans, arriving across the landbridge from Siberia about 13,000 years ago. That theory is being undermined by new evidence; the first Americans may have arrived as much as 15,000 years ago. It's an incredibly complicated question, and I can't do justice to it here.

A much greater proportion of the book is devoted to the Indian civilizations themselves. Indians in Central and South America invented agriculture as early, possibly slightly earlier, than Sumer in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The meso-Americans, in what is now southern Mexico, created maize from a not-very-similar wild plant about 5,000 years ago--a really impressive feat of biological engineering. We get overviews of the Aztecs and Incas, of course, but also of the Maya, the Toltecs, the Olmecs, and cultures I'd never heard of.

We see how advanced the Aztecs and Incas were, how organized, and have to confront the question of how the Spanish--arriving in relatively small numbers, Pizarro had just 168 men to defeat the Inca empire--managed to win. It wasn't the gun; the firearms the Spanish had just weren't that impressive, and disciplined troops with mastery of the weapons the Indians did have, including the sling, could have defeated them. Horses were a bit more important, but, again, disciplined infantry can and have defeated cavalry--especially when the numbers are so disproportionate. The real advantage the Spanish had was twofold. Firstly, the two major Indian empires, Aztec and Inca, were both politically vulnerable. The Inca ruler was young, inexperienced, and had just survived a major dynastic struggle. The Aztecs are more properly known as the Triple Alliance, and there were stresses both between the members of the alliance, and between the members of the alliance and their subject peoples. Forming an alliance with the disaffected was a critical advantage for Cortes. The vulnerability of the Incas and the Aztecs, as well as other peoples of the Americas, was further compounded by the epidemic diseases the Spanish had inadvertently brought with them.

The last part of the book concerns what, in school, I learned to call the Five Civilized Tribes. Mann calls them, I'm sure much more appropriately, the Five Nations. This is another revelation for me; what I knew about the Five Nations is but a pale shadow of the reality. What were originally five warring nations, afflicted by the honor culture, joined together in an alliance under the prodding and leadership of Ayenwatha (better known to most Americans as Hiawatha) and Deganawida, The Great Peacemaker. This alliance, the Iroquois Confederacy, covered much of what is now the northeastern US, and was at least four centuries old when the Pilgrims arrived at Plimouth. They lived a degree of social equality unimaginable in Europe at the time, and had a government structure that in theory made the sachems (all male) autocrats within their realms, but in practice gave considerable power to the clan leaders (all women), and created an expectation that sachems would not ignore the opinions and will of their people. It wasn't a democracy, but set an example of political and social freedom and near-equality that was very attractive, sometimes subversively so, to the European settlers.

This is a fascinating book that I haven't half done justice to. Highly recommended! ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Eye opening. ( )
  AnupGampa | Jun 30, 2018 |
This is one of the best history books that I have read! I have ranted on everyone about this book. There is so much infomation that I did not know in here. I am so crazy interested now and want to learn more about the pre-columbian period in American history as well as the early colonial history (if I can bare it). I had so many of my vague notions of how the Americans was before Europeans arrived challenged and changed. I can't wait to learn more!
I loved that the book didn't just look at what the current consensus on the history of the Americans is, but also on what it has been and what the academic discussion are and how they arrived at the current consensus. It is fascinating!
I loved that it didn't just go into archaeology and history but also spend a lot of time on biology. I learned so much. Corn is fascinating!
If you are at all interested in pre-modern history this is a great read and has so much interesting infomation. ( )
  macthekat82 | May 26, 2018 |
Really great. ( )
  gabarito | May 13, 2018 |
Could not get into it; not in right frame of mind. This is a tome, 541pp
  scullybert | Mar 25, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 130 (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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Preface: 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)

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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)

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