1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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 influ...

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Title:1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Author:Charles C. Mann
Rating:
ISBN:1400032059
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:541 pages

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Reviews

  • Douglas Hunter
    Jul 27, 2007

    As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New Wor

    As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New World. (She wholeheartedly supports the "a really, really long time" camp.)

    My only critique of 1491, and it is minor, is that the author I feel overstates the case that Europeans (mainly English) did not enjoy a military superiority over the natives, that their powder weapons were ineffective. This is a rather generous reading of native military capability. The English army did away with the longbow in 1598, and for all their problems, powder weapons were a clear advantage. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain used just three harquebus to devastating effect against the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in 1609, and in his trade and colonization monopoly, secured in 1612 under the Prince de Condé, the terms specifically forbid anyone to trade powder weapons with the natives, under penalty of a 10,000 livre fine and corporal punishment. One of the key factors in European inability not to immediately conquer or eradicate native populations by force was the sheer lack of firepower. (They also needed them as trade partners.) These commercial ventures (English and French in particular) didn't have the full might of their states behind them in the early contact period. Had England or France made up their mind to truly "conquer" these shores and their peoples, they would have marched through them much like de Soto did in the southeastern US in the mid 16th century, for good or for ill (pretty well for ill). But an idea the author does well to advance is the fact that coastal nations or tribes that made contact with the newcomers often came to decide that they should secure a strategic advantage and enlist the newcomers' aid in fighting their own enemies. It was a complicated time, and 1491 is a worthy overview.

    Having now finished, I'll still recommend it. For those interested in precontact cultures north of 49 (as in half of North America) the lack of material about French Canada is a little disappointing. There's nothing about the much-debated vanishing of the Iroquoian-speaking residents of the St. Lawrence (at Hochelaga and Stadacona) who were there in large numbers in palisade villages when Cartier first visited in the 1530s, but had vanished utterly by the time Champlain showed up in 1603. But that's nitpicky, considering the enormous scope of this work.

  • Jason
    Aug 14, 2007

    Very well written, a good mixture of factual evidence and narrative. The main take home point here should be known to everyone, especially Americans. There is a reason why there was a period of 128 years between Colombus' landing and a permanent European settlement in North America. Namely, there were millions of Native Americans there who thought Europeans were dirty, amusing creatures who had interesting objects but were not fit for being neighbors. Attempted European settlers were continuousl

    Very well written, a good mixture of factual evidence and narrative. The main take home point here should be known to everyone, especially Americans. There is a reason why there was a period of 128 years between Colombus' landing and a permanent European settlement in North America. Namely, there were millions of Native Americans there who thought Europeans were dirty, amusing creatures who had interesting objects but were not fit for being neighbors. Attempted European settlers were continuously driven out. When one tribe finally took pity on the English settlement of Plymouth, it was only because a smallpox epidemic had killed vast numbers of the them off, and they were concerned about being run over by their enemies, who had not yet suffered this fate. It is likely that were it not for the outbreaks of smallpox, preceding many of the first European scouts moving westward, that America would have never been a country.

    Oh yeah, and concerning South America, there is evidence that much, possibly 70-80%, of the Amazon forest is man-made.

    This is definitely a well researched & eye opening book that will challenge the idea that Native Americans were a sparse people who had no effect on their environment and let things be on their own. The only reason people think that most Native Americans were purely nomadic hunters was because the smallpox had killed off most of the 'urbanized' settlements that required agriculture.

  • Brendan
    Sep 13, 2007

    The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.

    But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as ri

    The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.

    But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as rich as medieval europe's is ludicrous, especially given that such a huge volume of Aztec codices have been preserved and deciphered. The Aztecs did some respectable philosophical work, but Mann's exaggerations aside, they didn't come close to rivaling the work done in ancient Greece, to say nothing of the subsequent 2,000 years of philosophy in Europe (with a nod towards Middle Eastern contributions as well) that took place between the death of Aristotle and the discovery of the new world. Today, it may be possible to take a mesoamerican philosophy course in some university departments, but there are very few (if any) lasting or novel contributions to the the broader discipline of philosophy to be found in Aztec (or Mayan, or Incan) philosophy. There's no shame in that: it has been said that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. So why feel the need to exaggerate and mislead readers by making politically correct assertions that have no basis in reality?

    Also, the distinction the author draws between guilt and responsibility (i.e. 'we' should not feel guilty that Cortes introduced smallpox and wiped out 95% of american indians, but 'we' have some responsibility for this) is way too underdeveloped to be taken seriously. I don't necessarily think that the discussion is even necessary, but it is not an uncommon discussion in US politics, and Mann consciously decides to wade into these waters. First, he never defines 'we,' though it seems he means whites of european descent residing in the new world (and maybe Europeans back in Europe who benefitted from mercantilism/colonialism? It's not clear). And then he never explains how responsibility can be justly divided among descendants; how someone of, say, direct Cortez lineage might have a different level of 'responsibility' than a descendant of an Irish family with no seafaring anscestors and no pedigree in the New World until the late 19th century. And if they have the same 'responsibility,' then does a modern day Chinese or Indian immigrant to the new world also have some responsibility? All unclear, and the absence of even any contemplation of these points leaves the book's attempts at constructing a morality of European/American Indian interaction disappointingly hollow. Mann decided the topic was worthy enough to merit some discussion; it is unfortunate he failed to do the topic any justice.

  • Ken-ichi
    Nov 28, 2007

    In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.

    Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our concep

    In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.

    Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness. This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix "savage" with "noble," because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.

    He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:

    1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought (i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off)

    2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts

    3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural world

    On the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes. However, there were a number of things that set me off, most of them centering around my suspicion that Mann was trying harder to convince than reveal. Maybe this stems from his journalistic rather than academic background, but I constantly felt cajoled when what I wanted to feel was "of course!"

    First of all there was the general lack of methods. Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a result of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived. To his credit, Mann touches on it, but he treats the issue of error as a sort of footnote, noting one scientist who thinks the degree of error makes the numbers meaningless. Throughout the book I found myself asking, "But how do we know that?" and was generally disappointed by the number and quality of the citations (sources often include interviews, personal communication, and secondary sources that themselves lack citation).

    To provide another example, on p. 234 he describes how Olmecs deformed the pliant skulls of their infants to make them look a certain way... only to admit archaeologists only assume they did this based on their artwork. No ellipsis can adequately contain my stupefaction at the absurdity of that claim. Have you seen Mesoamerican artwork? Have you seen

    human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe? Not exactly the height of realism. Perusing his

    , it seems that the figurines looked deformed, and intentional deformation was apparently documented elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but the citation trail goes Spanish there, so I'm lost. If there were first-hand accounts of similar practices, you need to describe them. In the text. Because shaping baby skulls is WEIRD by our standards.

    There were other portions that just seemed irrational and/or unscientific. His attempt to equate human sacrifice among the Mexica (aka Aztecs) and 17th century executions in Britain was a bit ridiculous, as fellow Goodreads user

    (p. 134). On p. 172 he actually describes error ranges for carbon dating as "typographical clutter" [muffled howl of rage]. On p. 291 he writes, "Indians [...] began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast." He cites

    (an Atlantic Monthly article about chestnut restoration) and

    , neither of which mention Indian planting. You get the picture.

    Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general sense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer. Two back-to-back quotes sum this up nicely:

    "The complexity of a society's technology has little to do with its level of social complexity–something that we, in our era of rapidly changing seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping." (p. 250)

    "But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world." (p. 251)

    The sagacity of the former idea and the absurd implication that cultural and technological interchange in Eurasia was both one-way

    morally wrong perfectly describe 2/3 of the Ueda-Mann Venn diagram.

    But like I said, on the whole pretty good. I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the founding of the United States

    intriguing, worth books of their own. Maybe that's where he's going with 1493.

    before the Fall of Man. Talkin' Bilbical here. (p. 14)

    terrestrial, pertaining to soil. (p. 80)

    in this context, leaders (or states?) that act primarily in response to larger political entities. (p. 138)

    tending to fall apart / separate. (p. 373)

  • Tripp
    Feb 02, 2008

    Author Charles Mann's purpose is to debunk three commonly held ideas about the Americas before Columbus: that the continents were sparsely populated, that the social and technical development was limited and that the locals left the environment untouched.

    In discussing scholarly debates on these subjects, he convincingly argues that the population, before the decimation of disease, was quite high. The debate is just how many people there were rather than whether the continents were pristine unocc

    Author Charles Mann's purpose is to debunk three commonly held ideas about the Americas before Columbus: that the continents were sparsely populated, that the social and technical development was limited and that the locals left the environment untouched.

    In discussing scholarly debates on these subjects, he convincingly argues that the population, before the decimation of disease, was quite high. The debate is just how many people there were rather than whether the continents were pristine unoccupied lands waiting for the taking. The major factor here is the spread of Old World disease.

    On the question of social and cultural development, he argues that Peru and Mesoamerica should be counted among the birthplaces of human culture. While they didn't develop in the same way as Asian or European societies, they represent great achievements that best took advantage of their situation.

    His final point is that the locals were extensive modifiers of the environment. In fact he goes so far as to say that the Amazon as we know it is the result of thousands of years of human engineering.

    All of these arguments have their foes and Mann gives them room in the book as well. It's a fair, easy to read book that will likely educate and entertain all but specialists.

  • Stefan
    Aug 01, 2008

    This book could be good. Unfortunately the author seems determined in every part of his "research" to interject his own opinion without duly backing it up. I stopped reading it somewhere around page 100, where the author makes the comparison between ritual human sacrifice by the Aztecs and executions in European countries. By taking the executions in England for a 100 year period, then adjusting for the size of the English population compared to the estimated possible population of the Aztecs, a

    This book could be good. Unfortunately the author seems determined in every part of his "research" to interject his own opinion without duly backing it up. I stopped reading it somewhere around page 100, where the author makes the comparison between ritual human sacrifice by the Aztecs and executions in European countries. By taking the executions in England for a 100 year period, then adjusting for the size of the English population compared to the estimated possible population of the Aztecs, and comparing that yearly execution total with what Cortez estimated, Mann concludes that Europeans were more bloodthirsty. Despite my issues with the math behind these comparisons, I'm still left wondering what Mann's point is.

    That becomes my issue with the book. Mann presents a lot of good factual arguments, but then includes hints of his own opinions that don't really contribute to Mann's argument that New World cultures surpass what has been previously estimated, assumed, and ingrained into our own culture.

  • Jason Koivu
    Nov 22, 2008

    This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.

    Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset

    This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.

    Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset and Squanto, the first Native Americans to make contact with the Plymouth Colony pilgrims, and how in 1621 they strolled into the transplanted Englishmen's village and a big party broke out, thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving. I was (mis)taught in a Massachusetts classroom where heritage and history are king, so much was made of this. We were led to believe the story by elementary schoolteachers who probably wholeheartedly believed it themselves. What about the Virginia Colony of 1607 and their contact with the native inhabitants? It failed, so sweep it under the rug. Something tells me this version of America's founding by Europeans was not the one being taught in Virginia at the time...

    Never was explained how the two natives could speak English (from Englishmen fishing off of the Maine coast and, in Squanto's case, from abduction and internment for seven years in England) or anything that happened in the Americas prior to the pilgrims landing. Oh sure there was talk of Incas and Mayans and their all important maize. But the extent, the sheer size of the native tribes, clans, and cosmopolitan societies of the Americas, north and south, and how Europe brought it all down upon their heads, none of this was discussed. Why? Because even during the late 1970s and early 80s when the movement to turn the Native Americans into mystical caretakers of Mother Earth, there was still a prejudicial sense of 'white is right' prevalent, at least in the neighborhood I grew up in. The other reason is a plain lack of knowledge. My simple teachers simply did not know. They can't wholly be blamed. The information wasn't readily available or flat-out

    available. School books were traditional and outdated. The grey-area material was swept under the rug. Now there is less grey-area material - advances in technology and archaeological practices have greatly advanced our knowledge of the past in just a few short decades - but there's still plenty of unknown patches of time in the western hemisphere. In

    Mann does not shy away from them.

    Having said that, it should be noted that this is not just about North America. No, in fact more time is spent on everything below it. Through discovered texts and deciphered inscriptions there's just more known about Mesoamerica than the other areas, so yes, there are pages upon pages about those Incas and Mayans.

    In general what I love about

    is that it doesn't take the Indians' side or the Europeans'. It doesn't try to cast a glowing angelic light upon the native inhabitants to transform them into woodland spirits whose only concern was the preservation of the trees and the birds, etc blah blah blah (Earth Day is quaint and misguided, but I digress...), nor does Mann attempt to attack or defend the actions of the Europeans. All is more of a statement of fact or, if lacking concrete evidence, a statement of possibility based on sound theory.

    Sure, this distills oceans of scholarly study down to a more manageable duck pond, but it never tries to pretend it is doing otherwise. Mann is no pretender to vaunted erudition. He's a journalist who's done some research. He's a guy who realized his own grade school education was lacking, and when he found out the moldy stuff he was taught way back when was still being taught to his son he decided to do something about it. I'm glad for it.

  • Bruce
    Jan 12, 2009

    Let me start by noting that Mann is a journalist, rather than a historian or cultural anthropologist. This results in a work that is extremely accessible to the non specialist reader and lacking in jargon.

    So much of our notions of what North America was like before Europeans arrived are the result of our own impact on the continent. The notion of an empty continent populated by either "noble savages" or aborigines comes from the fact that the population was decimated by western diseases within

    Let me start by noting that Mann is a journalist, rather than a historian or cultural anthropologist. This results in a work that is extremely accessible to the non specialist reader and lacking in jargon.

    So much of our notions of what North America was like before Europeans arrived are the result of our own impact on the continent. The notion of an empty continent populated by either "noble savages" or aborigines comes from the fact that the population was decimated by western diseases within a 100 years of our arrival.

    Mann shows that Native American cultures were highly civilized and complex, with enormous centers of population and highly organized agricultural and political societies. He shows that when Europeans came to North America, they were not seeing a "state of nature" but rather a continent that had already been significantly changed by the agricultural practices of its inhabitants.

    We tend to think of small villages of teepees or cave dwellings. But Mann shows that the populations of the America were equivalent to those of Europe in 1500, and that there were large, organized communiteis throughout the continent. Some of the largest of these, such as the cities of the mound people of the plains, or Tenochtitlan in South America, were enormous in scale, and highly civilized.

    There was so much here before we arrived, and its important to remember this.

  • Felicia
    Dec 25, 2011

    Fascinating exploration of what we know of the "New World" before Columbus arrived. I knew pretty much nothing about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before. It's also an interesting survey of these societies and their environments, of how the Indians and the "pristine" environments are a bit of a myth. The scope of the book covers so many different culture, puts everything into a co

    Fascinating exploration of what we know of the "New World" before Columbus arrived. I knew pretty much nothing about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before. It's also an interesting survey of these societies and their environments, of how the Indians and the "pristine" environments are a bit of a myth. The scope of the book covers so many different culture, puts everything into a context I never imagined before.

    The author obviously loves what he does, and relishes research and it definitely makes potentially dry material come to life. Opened my eyes to a subject I knew nothing about, so I highly recommend!!!!

  • Hana
    Dec 05, 2013

    Well, I finally finished it. There were some interesting factoids, such as the theory that much of the Amazon rainforest was planted by humans, but even then the data were not marshaled in a convincing, coherent fashion. Over all, the book was badly organized, the chapter and section headings provided no clue to their purpose, the text jumped wildly across continents and thousands of years for no logical reason and technical terms were too of

    Well, I finally finished it. There were some interesting factoids, such as the theory that much of the Amazon rainforest was planted by humans, but even then the data were not marshaled in a convincing, coherent fashion. Over all, the book was badly organized, the chapter and section headings provided no clue to their purpose, the text jumped wildly across continents and thousands of years for no logical reason and technical terms were too often introduced but never defined (I had to look up MFAC in the index to discover it meant Maritime Foundation of Andean Civilization). By far the best part of the book were the aerial photographs that clearly showed the size and complexity of South America's ancient farms and cities. The maps were useful as well, but aides such as a pronunciation guide or a timeline were among the many missing elements.

    And it's not just the organization of the book that is a challenge; the writing style is difficult as well. One sentence goes on for 27 lines. The author mixes metaphors with such abandon that I often despaired of untangling the meaning: "Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift. Leading South America's slow, grinding march toward Australia, its coastline hits the ocean floor and crumples up like a carpet shoved into a chair-leg."

    I simply cannot fathom why so many people thought this book was so wonderful. I will have to look elsewhere for a coherent analysis of this topic.

    For an excellent analysis of some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in North America, consider

    --it is more scholarly as well as being much more readable and interesting.

    's

    is an interesting introduction to one of the most definitive chronicles of Native American cultures in North America. Curtis' entire multi-volume original work is available online at this

    I have not read this one yet, but I hear good things about

    from my friends at the History Book Club.

    The 1491 factoid about the Amazon rainforests having been heavily cultivated for extended periods of time seems likely to be correct. See this fascinating article about the rainforest's maroon people from

    .