Clif's Reviews > 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 by Charles C. Mann
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's review
Apr 30, 2010

really liked it
Read in April, 2010

As time goes by, Native-American cultures rise from the ashes in the estimation of historians supported by the evidence of archeology. In this book, Charles Mann writes of the latest evidence that the pre-Columbian "new world" had a larger human population and far more of an impact on the environment than has been thought.

Far from being an undisturbed forest primeval, Indian cultures actively altered plants and selectively hunted animals to create the best living environment for their settlements. Even in the dense Amazon rain-forest, known for poor quality soil, there are patches of fertile soil that appear to be man-made.

Mann takes the reader on a tour of the centers of early American civilization while introducing what had been accepted wisdom for each and the evidence for modifying, if not overturning, established ideas.

He's no fan of the environmentalism that credits the natural world with perfection and mankind with mindless destruction that must be reversed. Man is simply another actor in the ecological process.

His account of the passenger pigeon in North America is a good example of this. While I had always assumed the huge numbers that covered the skies were the norm that the white man as hunter destroyed, Mann shows evidence that this was an unusual burst of population far exceeding the passenger pigeon numbers of earlier times. Analysis of old Indian cooking sites shows the pigeon to have been almost rare. Is it possible that the disappearance of the Indians that competed with the pigeons for mast (nuts and berries) resulted in the population explosion?

If there's a message to this book, it's that Native-American civilizations were too quickly written off as of limited significance and size. With new information, these cultures appear ever more fascinating and worthy of respect.

Mann provides many interesting sub-stories within this book that keep the reader entertained even on the driest of subjects. This is painless education at its best.

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